Tires Do Not Protect You During a Vehicle Lightning Strike

July 21, 2010 at 5:00 am 18 comments

By Chad Upton

I’ve always heard that a car is one of the safest places to be during a lightning strike and that is true.

The tires usually get all the credit. As the story goes, tires are rubber and rubber is an insulator, so you don’t get electrocuted in the car because you’re isolated from the ground like a bird on a wire.

It’s a pretty believable story, but it’s not the truth.

If you think about it, the lightning travels thousands of feet through thin air to reach the car — it could easily continue to travel through thin air to get around a few inches of rubber tires. Compared to the power of lightning, tires don’t really provide any protection.

Trains are struck by lightning and the people inside are fine, even though trains have metal wheels, which are great conductors.

Airplanes are regularly struck by lightning in the air. In fact, the FAA estimates that each plane gets struck about once per year.

So why are people safe in these cases?

It’s all because of a principle discovered by Michael Faraday in 1836.

Faraday demonstrated that an electrical charge exists only on the exterior of a hollow conductor and not the interior. He built a wire cage, that is now know as a Faraday cage, to demonstrate that an electrical current flowing through the cage did not produce an electrical current inside the cage.  When you’re in a vehicle, with a conductive exterior shell, you’re inside a Faraday cage and the electrical charge is carried around you.

Faraday cages can also be used to shield against electromagnetic radiation. Coaxial cables are common in most households for carrying TV signals. These cables are design with what amounts to be a built in Faraday cage to protect the inner copper wire from electrical noise.

Microwave ovens are also a good example of a Faraday cage. This principle protects you from exposure to microwaves by turning the inside of the oven into a Faraday cage. The mesh you see on the inside of the door is part of that cage and explains why the glass isn’t perfectly transparent.

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Sources: Wikipedia (Ground, Faraday Cage), Weather Imagery (Cars, Airplanes), Faraday Cage

Photo: jonathan mcintosh (cc)

Entry filed under: Around The House, Automotive, Despite Popular Belief. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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18 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Sara  |  July 21, 2010 at 5:21 am

    i love your blog, it’s always so interesting!!!

    Reply
  • 2. Nikola Malesevic  |  July 21, 2010 at 6:41 am

    Now this is why I love your blog!

    Reply
  • 3. Dylan  |  July 21, 2010 at 9:46 am

    One question about this myth that I had hoped to see is what happens if you leave the car? They say that if your car is struck by lightning, not to exit it or else the charge on the car will discharge through you to the ground. If it isn’t safe, what must we do to discharge the car and exit without getting fried?

    Reply
  • 4. Gord  |  July 21, 2010 at 9:51 am

    Just a note: it’s NOT spelled “lightening”… or “lighting”… PLEASE
    correct to read “LIGHTNING”… if you’re writing a worldwide blog, you should know proper spelling… Thanks…

    Reply
    • 5. Nikola Malesevic  |  July 21, 2010 at 10:11 am

      If you don’t like it, don’t read it. It wouldn’t be “a worldwide blog” if it wasn’t that good. Perhaps you should start your own “worldwide blog” where you could write about stuff with all these WORDS and dots……., I’m sure a lot of people would read it.

      Reply
      • 6. Mediocrity Rules  |  July 21, 2010 at 11:02 am

        mkmaowe amoeerarhh aealou amae?

        So how’s that for readability?

        Gord is right — blogs that mean to be read should aspire to more than sloppy scribbling.

    • 7. Chad Upton  |  July 21, 2010 at 11:03 am

      Gord, thanks for the feedback. Chalk this one up there with my other mistakes. I try to make everything perfect, but of course I’m human. In any event, you guys are always quick to correct me, you are like my editors and I appreciate it. Even with the occasional mistake, I think this blog is well worth the price of admission and I hope you stick around for the ride.

      Reply
      • 8. Dan The Man  |  July 21, 2010 at 12:22 pm

        That was a very diplomatic response. I would have been far more sarcastic!. Some people get satisfaction from finding faults in other peoples hard work. You’re doing a great job here Chad, keep it up!

    • 9. Jack  |  January 2, 2011 at 5:43 pm

      Perhaps you should learn the correct use of ellipses, before pointing out spelling errors, and although it may seem o.k. to capitalize a word for the sake of emphasis, this too is not correct.

      Thank you to the author, this blog answered a question I just had.

      Reply
    • 10. Brad  |  March 23, 2017 at 10:26 am

      @Gord, you need to go home and get your Pajamas on and go to bed, cuz this info is good shit, so go to bed you have school tomorrow.

      Reply
      • 11. Yimmy Yurner  |  March 23, 2017 at 10:57 am

        @Brad Hows Squirt?

  • 12. Elizabeth  |  July 21, 2010 at 10:34 am

    The idea of the rubber protecting you is that it prevents your vehicle from being grounded, which is what the lightning is typically seeking (during positive to negative strikes). However, during a heavy rainstorm, water provides a conduit, so the rubber is bypassed as an insulator.
    Keep in mind that since the exterior of your car is a Faraday cage in the case of a lightning strike, you should avoid touching metal surfaces that are connected to the outer sheetmetal during a lightning storm. Modern cars are full of plastic interiors, so you’re protected in most positions.
    Exiting the car after a lightning strike — I’m not sure. If it’s raining hard, like in the video above, you’re probably ok, since the rain will have discharged the strike to ground already. I’d get out my cell phone and call someone, if it still worked. Better safe than sorry!

    Reply
  • 13. Elbyron  |  July 21, 2010 at 1:44 pm

    If you drive a convertible, there is probably not enough metal in the roof to provide a proper Faraday cage. If caught in a lightning storm, you should seek shelter in a nearby building and wait it out.
    Same would apply if your exterior or roof is made of fiberglass instead of metal.

    Reply
  • 14. Ryan  |  July 21, 2010 at 9:00 pm

    Awesome post! I always wondered about this.

    Reply
  • 15. cole  |  July 23, 2010 at 3:45 pm

    Probably your best secret yet!

    Reply
  • 16. Mika  |  July 23, 2010 at 3:59 pm

    I’ve been trying to tell people this for years. I saw a demonstration of this principle at a museum once, where a large metal hollow globe was struck with blue lightning and it went all over the outside of the globe.

    True, lightning voltage can easily jump a few inches over tires to reach the ground.

    Reply
  • 17. Kim Strautmanis  |  June 25, 2013 at 9:46 am

    I was driving to my client’s home and got caught in a terrible storm, Friday. It was lightning/thundering all around and very dark out. Suddenly, a bright ball of energy appeared in front of me. I kept asking, “what am I looking at God?” “What is this energy?” My car started shaking and vibrating as did my body. Then BOOM. Biggest blast I have ever heard. The most frighted I have ever been. Instant migraine. Took about 20 min to stop shaking. I believe my car was struck. Took a couple of days to start feeling better. Migraine is gone but my hearing is still off in my right ear. Hope I never experience something like that again! Guess I’m meant to be here for awhile. And thankfully, even though I was driving a convertible, I’m alive!

    Reply
  • 18. Lisa researching electrocution  |  January 10, 2014 at 8:14 pm

    Good information. My question is, then, can your car be used as a Faraday cage for electronics? I’ve never heard of that being the case, but this article raised the question in my mind.

    Reply

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