If my car is struck by lightening, what are the odds of getting electricuted?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Feb 01, 1995

Dear Tom and Ray:

A car driven by someone I know was travelling down the highway and was struck by lightning. Fire flamed up the antenna and also burned a hole in one tire. The occupant was OK. Would we be in any danger if we happened to be touching some metal inside the car at the time the lightning stuck?

TOM: Perhaps a little bit. That's why my brother always wears a rubber scuba suit when he drives. That way, he's not only protected against lightning, he's also prepared for the next time he crashes into the city water supply.

RAY: Actually, you're quite safe inside your car's passenger compartment. When a high frequency bolt of lightning hits a metal cage like your car, it tends to electrify only the outside surface.

TOM: Why does it behave that way? Well, by the time lightning has hit your car, it's already jumped a mile or two. At that point, it's got just inches to go to get to its destination....the ground. Your car just happens to be in the way. And the fastest way to get to the ground is by going straight down around the outside of the car.

RAY: There are metal surfaces adjacent to the outer shell of the car that can become somewhat electrified--like the metal trim around the windows. And if your arm happens to be resting on that metal, you could feel a little jolt. But it wouldn't be enough to do you any real damage. It would just temporarily straighten out your eyelashes.

TOM: And besides, very few cars actually get hit by lightning. So I wouldn't spend a lot of time worrying about this, Carol. In fact, my brother is more of a danger to you on the road than lightning is. He can't see much of anything when he's wearing that scuba mask.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter