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Lightning: Safety Tips For The Real Thing (Rather than Greased or McQueen)

One of the things about the warmer and more volatile weather of spring is that thunderstorms become a lot more common.  Opinions are mixed about thunder and lightning (and hail and wind and…), with some people loving a good thunderstorm while others sit quaking like jellies with every roll of thunder. I’m in the former camp but every driver needs to know a thing or three about driving when conditions get a bit wild.

First of all: the issue of lightning.  What should you do if there’s a violent storm when you’re driving?lightning

Whatever you do, stay in your car. You may or may not be able to keep driving, depending on what else is going on. Even if your car gets hit by lightning, you will be safe as long as you’re not touching any metal.  The car will take the hit for you thanks to the metal of the body, which will conduct electricity and help ground it. You might get a few problems with the electrics and the body work in the rare event that you get hit.

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the rubber tyres acting as insulators between you and the ground that make it safe for you to be in the car during a lighting storm. It’s the metal.  A cage of metal around you acts like a sort of shield so the lighting hits it and not you.  This is known to science buffs as a Faraday cage, and if you check out a few good BBC or Discovery Channel documentaries on weather and electricity, you can see people standing inside these cages – and not touching the metal – while artificially generated lighting crackles around them.  But make sure that you are surrounded by metal – if you’re in a convertible vehicle, put the top up. Those caught out in a soft-top convertible have a bit more of a problem as here, you’re not completely surrounded by metal.  In this case, your safest bet is to get to a decent shelter ASAP until the storm passes. A public loo or a bus shelter will do the trick.

What if there’s no shelter in sight and you are out in a soft-top convertible?  The various lightning safety websites I visited didn’t really give an answer to this one, but going by the advice they give for other situations, I guess the best thing to do would be pull over and get your body as low as you can. The front pillar in most convertibles is usually the highest part of the vehicle (you see a good example of this in the picture accompanying our VW Golf Cabriolet review ).  This suggests that this will be the point struck by lightning, so keep well away from it as much as possible and don’t touch anything metal. The odds are in your favour and you might not get hit, so try not to panic. Whatever you do, stay in the car!

It’s a smart idea to switch your car radio off during a thunderstorm and to put down your aerial. Those with integrated permanent aerials in their cars might have a bit of a problem. Anything that sticks up attracts lighting. They also say that it’s wisest not to use a phone, even a cordless phone.

And if your car does get struck by lightning?  The amount of damage does vary.  You hear stories ranging from the tyres blowing out (all four of them) and the electrics getting totally fried, through to next to nothing happening.  Just as well that most car insurance policies do cover lighting strike!