Thunderstorms are certainly one of nature’s most impressive and most powerful displays. Getting caught in a thunderstorm might be thrilling but it is definitely dangerous.
Knowing where to take shelter as well as how to properly take shelter might mean the difference between marveling at a passing storm and literally riding the lightning. Sheltering in your home is one thing, sheltering in your car is another.
How do you stay safe in your vehicle during a thunderstorm?
Most vehicles offer solid protection against lightning. Utilizing the same principle as a Faraday cage, any lightning that strikes a vehicle will result in the electricity conducting through the bodywork, and down through the tires into the ground. So long as you’re not touching any metal component on the inside of the car or any electronics, you should be OK.
There is more to know, of course, and we will be providing you with a full complement of procedures and safety tips for surviving the passing of a thunderstorm inside your vehicle.
It might make for a terrifying experience, but if you follow these rules you should be safe even from a direct hit!
Only Certain Vehicles Offer Protection from Lightning
Before we go any further, it is imperative that you understand only certain vehicles will afford you any protection against lightning.
No, it is not any vehicle that actually has four rubber tires touching the ground; as it turns out the rubber tires of an automobile actually do nothing to protect or insulate you from lightning. You are dealing with electricity so powerful that the rubber is basically meaningless!
For a vehicle to reliably protect you from lightning, it must have metal bodywork and a fixed top. Convertibles and ragtops will not protect you from lightning strikes, although convertible hardtops should be okay.
Additionally, any vehicle that has fiberglass bodywork is not likely to protect you, or at best will offer significantly less protection than a vehicle with metal bodywork.
It should go without saying that open topped vehicles and vehicles without any kind of automobile body, such as motorcycles, riding lawn mowers, go karts and the like offer no protection at all.
Again, the presence of rubber tires is meaningless! They will not protect occupants or riders in any way!
Also, contrary to popular rumor, large construction equipment that features a fully-enclosed operator’s compartment will provide the same level of protection against lightning as a common passenger vehicle with metal bodywork.
You Cannot Touch Any Metal inside the Vehicle
A vehicle described above that will protect you from lightning does so by channeling the electricity from the strike across and through the metallic skin and frame of the vehicle into the ground.
This works on the same principle as a Faraday cage, with you being the precious contents inside the cage hopefully protected!
But because the electricity will be coursing through the vehicle on impact, if you provide a pathway for it by touching a metallic component inside the cabin you might still be shocked.
This means you should keep your arms and legs off of the doors, off of any interior roll bars or structural members, and off of any metallic controls.
For older vehicles this typically includes the steering wheel, and especially includes those with exposed metal or skeletonized steering wheels.
With newer vehicles you are likely safe still touching the steering wheel, but the U.S. National Lightning Safety Institute recommends you keep both hands off of the wheel and in your lap just to be sure.
Don’t Touch any Electronics
Similar to the rule above regarding touching metal components inside the vehicle you should not touch any electronics that are built into the car if you are worried about a lightning strike. This includes sound system controls, touch screens, radios, power adapters and the like.
There have been too many reported instances of direct or near lightning strikes energizing vehicles and shocking occupants through electronics.
Even in cases where the occupants are not shocked, these electronics can be rapidly heated, and hot enough that they will burn you badly. Keep your hands off the electronics until the storm has completely passed!
Most people will drive through thunderstorms with little worry of lightning so long as they can see through the attendant rain
However, for maximum again the National Lightning Safety Institute recommends that you pull over, turn your emergency flashers on, ensure all windows are up and then turn the vehicle off before waiting for the storm to pass with your hands in your lap and off of all body work and all electronics.
This should ensure that even if your vehicle is struck you will be safe. Though most people will not pay any extra mind should they have to drive through a thunderstorm the risk factor is higher, however slight. You should keep this in mind especially during high-frequency lightning strike events.
Beware Near Strikes!
You should not believe for a moment that your vehicle will serve in any kind of helpful capacity if you are outside the vehicle, but near it. Lightning that strikes your vehicle and then conducts into the ground could still affect you from many tens of feet away.
Alternately, lightning may initially hit the vehicle then “splash” or “jump” to you if you are nearby. Depending on the terrain around your vehicle it might serve as a likely target for lightning, actually increasing the danger if you are not inside it.
If you are outside your vehicle for any reason when lightning threatens you should either get back inside it and follow the procedures outlined in this article or seek appropriate shelter inside an enclosed structure. Nothing else will afford you as much protection.
What Actually Happens to My Vehicle when it is Struck by Lightning?
Contrary to what you might expect, lightning striking a vehicle does not necessarily result in its total destruction. For all of its incredible power, lightning remains an unpredictable and enigmatic force.
Some vehicles are struck by lightning, and show absolutely no damage or any ill effects as unbelievable as it sounds. Other vehicles are struck by lightning and only have minor damage to paint, trim or metal finishes showing its passage. Still, others are struck and burned or slagged, showing obvious severe damage.
Even for vehicles loaded with electronics the outcome is not certain, though negative effects ranging from malfunction to total destruction a wiring and electronics packages are common.
Some vehicles might be effectively totaled from the complete loss of all of their intricate, integrated electronics, others might not show any signs of obvious damage, even passing diagnostic checks from factory authorized service centers only to remain plagued by phantom malfunctions that are difficult to track down.
Ultimately, while your vehicle might be undamaged or nearly so, or it might be totaled as a result of a lightning strike, so long as it is a suitable vehicle according to the recommendations made above you should be safe when lightning strikes it and that is the important thing.
Any vehicle with a metal body that is not a convertible will offer a considerable amount of protection for occupants against lightning strikes.
So long as you remember to keep your arms and legs off of any metal components inside the passenger compartment and avoid touching any electronics, you should be safe even in the event of a direct hit.
Keep in mind that soft tops, open topped vehicles and soft-top convertibles do not offer any protection whatsoever against lightning, and vehicles with fiberglass bodywork may only offer marginal protection.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.