What happens when your car gets hit by lightning?
Most people have been told that we’re safe from lightning strikes while we’re in a car. The reason, as the claim goes, is that car tires act as insulation from the lightning, much like the rubber coating on a wire. So, as long as no metal parts connect directly to the ground, your car will not get hit, right?
Unfortunately, that’s a myth. As with any other metal object that’s outside during a lightning storm, your car is quite susceptible to being struck by lightning. That doesn’t mean that you aren’t safe inside of it, however. In fact, in a lot of cases, your car can offer enough protection that it’d be advisable to stay inside the car rather than get out of it.
What happens to your car when struck by lightning?
It’s important to note that electricity reacts differently to different materials. The outer shell of most cars is generally comprised of metal, but that isn’t always the case – convertibles or cars made out of fiberglass will not fare against lightning the way a metal car will. And there are other factors as well, like whether your car is wet or dry. Add the different energy levels a lightning can have and its typically capricious nature, and you can see why each lightning strike leads to different results.
Still, since even today, most cars are comprised of mostly metal, if your car’s windows are closed and the engine is stopped, you are likely to be okay even if a lightning strikes your vehicle. That’s because of a phenomenon called the “skin effect” – simply put, lightning has a very high frequency and this makes its currents to be carried out mostly on the outside of conducting objects. Things like copper wires and hollow-wall metal pipes carry most of the lightning on their outside and so do metal cars.
People tend to confuse this with the effect of a Faraday cage. While the two effects are similar, a Faraday cage works only with static electricity, while the skin effect works with rapidly moving electricity. Either way, for the driver of the car the same rules apply – if the car is made of metal and not fiberglass, if the windows are closed, and if there is no convertible roof, you should be protected inside the vehicle as you would be in a Faraday cage.
However, this doesn’t mean that your car won’t sustain any damage. Here are some of the things you can expect if your car does get hit by lightning:
Engine shut down
When a car gets hit by lightning, it’s quite possible for the engine to shut down. There are numerous different ways a strong electric current can alter the work of an engine, so it’s best to shut off your engine yourself while in a storm.
Internal fire and damage
When a lightning strikes the car, internal fire and damage are also possible as there are a lot of easily ignitable surfaces in every vehicle.
Damage to the electrical system
The electrical systems of your car can also suffer damage from a stronger lightning strike so don’t touch any electrical devices during a lightning storm.
Damage to the electrical systems of a car can have various different effects like the deployment of the car’s airbags. There are recorded cases of people being harmed by sudden airbag deployment after a lightning strike, so in the case, this happens, remember to stay in a stable position, laying back on your seat and not touching any electrical or metal objects and devices.
External damage – pitting, arching and burn marks
There are various kinds of external damage that can happen to your vehicle after a lightning strike. Even a weak lightning can cause scorch marks, arching or pitting of the metal.
External damage as debris from the road can hit the car
If a lightning strikes the road near your car, chunks of stone and asphalt can easily cause structural damage to your vehicle or to you, should you choose to exit your car.
Differences depending on the energy of the lightning strike
Just as cars are different, so are lightning strikes. You can be fortunate enough to be struck by a low energy string or you might be hit by something much more powerful.
Low energy strike
If getting hit by a low energy strike, no serious damage should occur. The energy will dissipate through the body and the frame of the car and might only leave some minor scorch marks.
Medium energy strike
With medium energy strike, you can expect more significant scorch marks, accompanied by holes or melted metal. There could be burnt fuses, damage to the ignition system, fuel tank explosion and minor internal fires.
High energy strike
While if you receive a high energy strike, lightning of a really high energy level is sure to light the car on fire, may inflict heavy burns on the passengers, can cause death from cardiac arrest and can even cause the car to explode. Keep in mind, however, that the energy required for this is quite spectacular and high energy strikes happen quite rarely.
Should you remain in your car during a lightning storm and what to do?
If your car has a full metal frame and is not convertible or made out of fiberglass, your best course of action is to stay inside. The National Lightning Safety Institute recommends the following steps:
- Pull off to the side of the road, turn on the hazard lights, and turn off the engine
- Close all the windows and doors of the car
- Don’t touch any metal components like door handles, gearshifts, etc. Keep your hands in your lap
- Don’t touch the radio or any of the electronics in the car
- Wait for the storm to pass
- If your car gets struck by a lightning, inspect the damage visually, without touching anything if possible. Once the electrical current has passed through the vehicle and entered the ground, it should be safe to exit your car. However, if the storm continues and there hasn’t been any damage to the vehicle, you might want to stay inside