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Direct lightning strike kills motorcyclist in Florida

By Heather Schlitz
June 11, 2019, 3:26:36 PM EDT

The homicide investigator of 20 years who arrived at the scene said he’d never seen anything like it.

When lightning struck the motorcyclist on Interstate 95 in Florida on Sunday, the foam in the shattered helmet had disintegrated into pieces. Thin wires stuck out from long, singed gashes on the top.

“He’s never seen a helmet come apart this way,” Lt. Kim Montes, Florida Highway Patrol spokeswoman, said. “It appeared like the lightning bolt entered from the top of the helmet.”

Helmet lightning strike promo

A motorcyclist's helmet after he was killed by a direct lightning strike. The foam in his helmet disintegrated and burns disfigured the top of his helmet. A Florida homicide investigator with 20 years of experience said he'd never seen anything like it. (Florida Highway Patrol)

Benjamin Austin Lee, 45, of Charlotte, North Carolina, was riding through sluggish traffic and pouring rain when lightning hit him. After the strike, Lee veered toward the median, flipped over and flew from his vehicle, an off-duty Virginia state trooper who witnessed the strike said. Lee died before fire rescue arrived on the scene.

A GoFundMe page set up by Lee's friend, Kimberly Schultz, to support Lee's family described him as an adventurous person who wanted to see the world.

"He was a generous, kind, hard-working man that had an infectious personality and was just someone that you couldn’t help but want to be around! He would share everything he had with you — his time, his possessions, his love, and his support," Schultz said.

Benjamin Austin Lee

Benjamin Austin Lee was killed by a lightning strike on June 9, 2019. A friend, who referred to Lee as "Austin" described him as an adventurous, kind and hard-working person. (Benjamin Austin Lee's Family's Memorial Fundraiser/GoFundMe)

The fundraiser has raised more than $2,900 in less than a day.

Lee’s death marks the 12th motorcycle-related lightning fatality in the U.S. since 2006. Motorcyclists are more vulnerable to lightning strikes than people riding in cars because they lack the protection of a car’s metal shell, John Jensenius, the National Weather Service’s lightning safety expert, said. If a car is struck, the lightning will bend around the metal shell.

“If you’re on a motorcycle, however, you have no protection at all,” Jensenius said.

Lightning strikes killed 398 people in the U.S. since 2006, including two so far in 2019. Motorcycle-related fatalities make up roughly three percent of the total deaths.

“That’s still one per year, and you don’t want to see anyone killed by lightning,” Jensenius said.

Though Florida and other Southern states typically see the highest number of lightning fatalities in any given year, motorcycle-related lightning fatalities are concentrated in the West and Midwest.

If motorcyclists are stuck in traffic like Lee was, Jensenius said there’s little they can do to protect themselves from a direct strike. Direct strikes, which occur most often in open areas and are one of the most deadly ways to be struck by lightning, pose the biggest risk to motorcyclists on highways.

Jensenius said motorcyclists and others driving in exposed vehicles can try to head toward areas with trees and taller objects during storms, but to truly stay safe, they should watch the forecasts ahead of time and plan to seek shelter indoors or inside a car.

“There isn’t any place outside you can be safe,” he said.

Though some believe rubber tires insulate riders from lightning, the car’s metal shell is actually what protects passengers in cars. The tires on motorcycles, bicycles, ATV’s and other open vehicles don’t protect riders from lightning strikes.

Some also believe they won’t be struck by lightning if they move fast enough. Jensenius said outpacing lightning is another common myth. The first stage of lightning, called a stepped leader, shoots toward the ground from clouds, and can travel at around 200,000 miles per hour.

“If you’re going down the highway at 60 miles per hour and something’s coming down at 300,000 miles per hour, even though you think you’re traveling fast, you’re virtually stopped in terms of the lightning strike.”

The U.S. averaged six lightning fatalities by June 9 over the last 10 years, with 2019 clocking in at only two deaths.

“We see a lot of variation year to year. It doesn’t necessarily mean this year will be any lower than the average, but at this point we are below average. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why we’re at two vs six.”

Lightning activity is at its highest in the summer months of June, July and August, coinciding with the time where people are likely to be doing outdoor activities. More than 70 percent of lightning fatalities occur in June, July and August.

Sixty-two percent of people killed during lightning strikes from 2006 to 2018 were engaging in leisure activities, like fishing, camping and motorcycling when lightning struck, and most were headed toward safety before they were killed, according to Jensenius’ analysis of lightning deaths.

Since 1996, the number of lightning fatalities has been slashed in half, according to data from the National Lightning Safety Council, something Jensenius attributes to increased education and awareness.

Lightning fatalities from 1996 to 2018

“We have a simple saying: if thunder roars, go indoors,” he said. “If you hear thunder, you’re within striking distance of the storm, and you need to get inside right away.”

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