This Is What Happens When Lightning Hits Your Car

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Lightning storms can be loud, intense, and downright dangerous. When you’re driving around in a storm, it’s best to stop by the side of the road and let the weather mellow out a little before you continue. But what happens if the lighting hits your car?  

When lightning hits your car, the metal frame acts as a conductor sending the current through the car and into the ground. People inside can only be harmed if they’re in direct contact with the metal frame. A bolt of lighting will also most likely damage your car’s electrical systems.

In this article, we will share why it’s pretty safe to be in a car during a thunderstorm, what to do while waiting for the storm to pass, and what kind of damage to expect. 

Why It’s Safe To Sit in Your Car When Lightning Strikes

If your car is hit by lightning, the current won’t travel in a straight line through the vehicle. Instead, it travels on the outside of the car due to a phenomenon called the “skin effect.”

The skin effect is the tendency of current to flow towards the surface of a conducting material. For example, in a power cord, the skin effect results in most of the current flowing through the boundaries of the wire, and only a few electrons flowing in the center. As such, your car will conduct the lightning through the outer frame, leaving the center unaffected. 

The Faraday Cage effect is another reason why you won’t get hit by lightning inside your car. When your car is hit by electricity, it acts as a Faraday cage, creating a barrier between electrical discharge and the inside of the car. The current is passed through the conducting material (metal frame) and avoids the insides completely. 

The stronger the current, the higher the tendency that it will flow on the outside surface. Think of your car as a giant wire, with you sitting in the middle of the cable. This arrangement ensures that current is passed through the outside of the wire (the frame).  

Impact of a Lightning Strike on Your Car

The damage sustained by your car can range from minor cosmetic damage to a ruined electrical system. Because lightning is unpredictable, it’s challenging to determine what will happen to your car.

Here’s a list of possible damages your car may sustain when lighting strikes.. 

  • The heat from a lightning strike can melt a vehicle’s antenna and generate what appears to be a minor explosion of sparks, as tiny metal bits melt and burn. 
  • Some electricity may reach the vehicle’s electrical system, damaging or destroying electronic components.
  • In rare cases, the lightning could strike the tiny defrosting wires in the back windows, shattering them.
  • When the electric current travels through the frame and into the ground, it might destroy the tires on the way down.

A burnt car exterior is typically the most common after-effect of a lightning strike. These cosmetic damages usually happen at the point of contact, so if lightning strikes the hood, you’ll find the most significant damage here. Axles and wheels are other hotspots for damage as the lightning passes through them on the way down.

A common misconception is that rubber tires protect passengers from lightning. However, as mentioned, it’s the metal frame and not the rubber that will shield you during a lightning storm. Rubber is an excellent insulator only at low voltages. 

Lightning can discharge 100-million volts and 30,000 amps, which is significantly more than the 15-20 amp circuits and 120-240 volts most of us have in our homes. 

What To Do in Your Car During a Lightning Storm?

If you’re in your car during a lightning storm, avoid touching anything metal, especially if the object is connected to the car’s body. In fact, don’t touch anything at all, but keep your hands in your lap and wait till the storm passes.

If you have to pull over to wait out a thunderstorm, follow these suggestions:

  • Close the windows.
  • Don’t touch metal parts like doors and pedals which are attached to the frame.  
  • Sit back in case the airbags deploy.
  • Unplug your cell phone if it’s being charged and avoid using it until the storm has passed.
  • Once the storm passes, wait a few minutes for lingering electrical charges to dissipate before exiting the vehicle.

While most regular cars are relatively safe during a lightning storm, some vehicles won’t create a Faraday cage to protect the occupants. These vehicles include:

  • Convertibles
  • Golf carts
  • Riding mowers

Ironically, these vehicles are used primarily in the summer, when thunderstorms tend to be more frequent.

Also, cars made with fiberglass bodies don’t provide much protection as they don’t possess a metal frame to conduct the electricity. Luckily, most car manufacturers have discontinued the use of fiberglass in their designs.

What Are the Chances Lightning Will Hit Your Car?

The chances that lightning will hit your car are pretty negligible. The odds of getting hit by lighting fluctuate depending on where you live and what time of the year you’re driving. Most lightning strikes in the U.S. occur in two states—Florida and Texas.

Between 2010 and 2019, an average of twenty-six people died each year in the United States from lightning strikes. The number of direct lighting fatalities dropped to seventeen in 2020, probably because people spent less time outdoors.

Out of the seventeen that died in 2020, six (one-third) were in Florida or Texas when they died. In addition, most of those deaths happened when the individuals were outdoors, and not in their cars. 

In other words, if you want to reduce your risk of dying in a lightning storm, get into your car and wait it out.

Bottom Line

Should you get caught outdoors in a lightning storm, your car is perhaps one of the safest places to be. The vehicle creates a Faraday cage that shields you from electricity, and the phenomenon of the ‘skin effect’ comes into play, preventing the electrical charge from making contact with the inside of your car. 

So if you’re driving outside in a thunderstorm and can’t get to shelter in time, stay in your car and sit tight with your hands in your lap. Avoid touching anything and step out only when the storm has passed.

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