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December 12, 2013

Experts' Expert: When caught in a lightning storm, should you stay in a car or get out?


C. Claiborne Ray's always informative and useful Q&A feature in Tuesday's New York Times Science section addressed this as follows.


Q. When caught in a lightning storm, should you stay in a car or get out?

A. Stay in the car — but not necessarily for the reason you may think. The four rubber tires of a car provide no insulating protection, most authorities agree.

Instead, the National Lightning Safety Institute advises, it is the conductive nature of a mostly metal vehicle that actually offers the best chance of protection from lightning. Most of the current is carried on the outside of a conducting object. This phenomenon is called the skin effect, and the protective shield is sometimes referred to as a partial Faraday cage (named for the English scientist Michael Faraday, who developed shielding based on the effect).

So the best advice for a driver in a lightning storm is not only to stay within this protective perimeter, but to make sure not to touch any conductive object that might penetrate outside it, like door and window handles, the radio dial, the gearshift, or the steering wheel. A school bus is the type of vehicle likely to offer the most protection, the institute says.

Lightning is capricious, and many variables — among them whether the vehicle is wet or dry, metal or fiberglass, a hardtop or a convertible — can have an unpredictable effect on what happens to a car and its passengers.


Graphic by Victoria Roberts.

December 12, 2013 at 08:01 PM | Permalink


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It's pretty much just the skin effect. If a car was anywhere near an effective Faraday cage (even partial) then your mobile phone wouldn't work inside the car. It's good to see they used the term "sometimes referred to" rather than just saying "is". I'd have liked it if they'd have completed that sentence with "but that's not correct".

Posted by: Graeme | Dec 16, 2013 2:14:52 AM

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Especially like this classic!


Posted by: Joe Peach | Dec 13, 2013 11:59:19 AM

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