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
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During the summer of 2007, I was west bound on I-40 just about to cross the Arkansas / Oklahoma state line when my Ford Expedition was struck by a bolt of lightning. It was a very hot, hazy afternoon but strangely no thunderstorms could be seen nearby. The lightning hit the left rear corner of the luggage rack on the roof of the car, effectively welding the metal latch that allowed the rear cross member to be adjusted fore and aft. The vehicle’s engine continued to run but when the bolt hit it knocked out it out of cruise control and the radio stopped working. About 30 seconds later the left rear tire went flat. Drove on the flat for a few hundred yards and backed up onto the on-ramp coming from the nearby little hamlet of Dora.
While I was outside changing he flat tire, not out of the blue, but out of the haze a second bolt of lightning crackled overhead. It was the scariest thing I have ever heard in my life. I can only describe it as “vicious”. The crackling from that second bolt was incredible and you could feel the static energy in the air and smell the ozone afterwards. Again there was no storm in the area that I could see. The second bolt scared me far worse than the first one that actually struck the car.
I jumped back inside the vehicle and attempted to start the engine to get the AC running, but it wouldn’t crank. Called AAA got a tow to a Ford dealership at Fort Smith Arkansas. When I arrived a large crowd of mechanics had gathered to see the “car that had been hit by lightning” while traveling at 70 miles an hour. They had occasionally seen “utility trucks” with tall whip antennas hit while parked. But they had never heard of a moving car being hit before.
Technician said he had never seen so many codes pop up on the diagnostic machine before. Turns out that the reason the car would not start was that the electro magnetic pulse (EMP) had erased the ignition ring sensor embedded in the car’s steering column, that detects the key fob on the key ring. During the night the second rear tire on the right side went flat. Both had small holes torched thru the steel belts.
I can only come up with one explanation for why lightning hit the car. Many hours earlier in the morning I had driven thru a several thunderstorms with a lot of electrical activity while passing thru the state of Tennessee. I suspect that the car had picked up a negative electrical charge and since I had yet to stop for fuel the vehicle had never been grounded to anything.
Somewhere out in that haze, maybe 30 miles away there was a thunderstorm, and that bolt traveled that extreme distance seeking out my car. Either that or somebody “upstairs” was angry with me.
this just happened to me except i had a flash/crack/boom and the engine cut out at 55mph in a lightning/thunder/severe rain storm. i had no steering, brakes, electrial or hazard and it was at 9pm in the dark on a busy interstate no one could see me.
so did you get the car fixed…if so, what did they do to it to get it back to 100% (or do you have residual problems)…if not, was it totaled and did your insurance cover it ?
Yes I am still driving that sane 2000 Ford Expedition to this day! Fortunately, I had comprehensive insurance with Allstate and they took care of everything less the deductible of course.
Allstate paid for 2 new tires, new battery, alternator, rental vehicle for 3 days, diagnostics and the key fob sensor. AAA took care of the towing cost.
Didn’t bother to repair the luggage rack because I have never needed to adjust that rear sliding bar the entire time I’ve owned the vehicle. Every once in a while when I’m up on top tying down a ladder, canoe or something else that won’t fit inside, I see the spot where the paint was blasted off of the luggage rack and the flash welded metal pieces and I just smile.
The car does have one peculiarity since the incident. I fly light planes and noticed that if anyone transmits in VHF frequency ranges near the vehicle, the doors will automatically lock themselves. I’ve just learned to always either leave a window cracked open or take the keys with me when I’m out at the airport.
Those are CRAZY stories. Mine is somewhat self inflicted although out of desperation of care for.our daughter. We believe a low energy lightening strike just hit our converted handicap van. The alternator is definitely fried and being replaced as we speak. Stupidly my husband was jumping it from my car during a rain storm but only because my daughter needed to be taken to the ER and it’s how we transport her. At first he thought he’d hook the cables up wrong because as he was in the van turning it over it was running and a huge bolt of lightning came cracking over our house and then everything started to smell hot like burning plastic and the van died. So he couldn’t have crossed the cables because the van would never have started and it would have arched immediately which it never did. No Sparks or anything occured. So lesson learned and thankfully he was safely in the van and nothing happened to my car during the process. Now we’re waiting to see if there is anything else wrong with the van.