Brittany Quistorff of Rice, Minnesota found out what it's like to be in a car that is struck by lightning Friday morning. It melted her radio antenna, blew out her tire and back windshield, and caused additional damage to the exterior of the car. The video of the damage is pretty impressive:
She wasn't injured. Why? Lightning mythology will tell you it's because the car has rubber tires between it and the road. But do you really think a lightning strike that has just traveled several miles through thin air could be stopped by a couple inches of rubber? The reason cars are "safe" (see notes below) when struck by lightning is that the car acts as a "Faraday Cage" transmitting the charge around through the metal exterior of the car into the ground. While there's no hard evidence, the National Lightning Safety Institute warns that you may not be safe if your car is predominantly fiberglass.
There's only one video online that I know which has captured an actual lightning strike from within the car that was struck - and that's this one by Jon Person, which was featured on the Discovery Channel. You can't see the lightning itself but you can see the sparks flying off his car.
There are several things in that video, however, which are incorrect:
1. Jon said "I was terrified that if I touched any of the metal, that I would be instantly electrocuted." Once the lightning is over, the electrical charge is over (which is why it's fine to move someone who was struck by lightning).
2. He also said "I'm living proof that you're safe in your vehicle during a thunderstorm." While both he and Brittany survived without a scratch, if they had been touching anything metal or electronic in the car at the time the lightning hit, they could have been electrocuted, and clearly from Jon's video, there were sparks flying which could have caused injury.
3. He also pointed to hubcap damage, saying "you can see where the lightning went in." There are some other photos of damage from a car lightning strike on the NLSI website. They also shows several "strike to wheel" photos, also from a car that took strikes on the roof. I think it's more likely that we are looking at one of the exit locations for the lightning - after all, its goal is to go into the ground.
These cases are the exception to the rule -- according to the NLSI, "many" vehicle lightning strikes offer no physical damage that can be seen -- although internal electrical systems may still be harmed.
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