Lightning often appears as a brilliant flash in the distance, so it’s easy to forget that strike could be falling down in someone’s yard—and it could just as easily hit your own yard. Lightning is not a harmless flash of light: It can reach temperatures as high as 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the National Weather Service (NWS). (That’s hotter than the sun’s surface.)
The danger of lightning is that it can strike randomly. On average, lightning causes 38 deaths and 238 injuries a year, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). About 46 percent of those injuries and deaths happened to people who were outside and in an open area during the time of the lightning strike.
So the NWS has five crucial words to remember: “When thunder roars, go indoors.” A fully enclosed space—like your home or another building—is the best place to be during a lightning storm.
But what if you’re away from shelter? Breathe easy: Your car is a safe place to wait it out if you don’t have a home, restaurant, or mall nearby to protect you from lightning.
The Rubber Tires Theory, Debunked
That advice seems counterintuitive: Cars seem like a scary place to be during a lightning storm. They are literally a box of metal, and everyone knows metal can carry electrical current. But surprisingly—like a bodyguard taking a bullet for you—your car can take the hit of the lightning and keep you safe inside.
For decades, many people believed cars were a safe place during a lightning storm because of the rubber tires. Rubber is an insulator, according to the National Energy Foundation. Insulators do not conduct electricity well (compared to conductors, such as copper, steel, and water).
The rumor was, even though the car is made of metal, the rubber in the tires would halt the electrical current and keep you safe. Yes, you’ll be safe, but it’s not because of the rubber tires.
Here’s what actually goes down: Lightning usually hits the highest point of something, so the car’s antenna or roof will take the strike. Then, the electrical current will pass through the outer metal shell of your vehicle, according to NWS.
And then—get this—the electricity goes through the tires and to the ground. There’s enough steel in the tires to transfer electrical current, despite the insulating rubber.
In other words, your car protects you from lightning because the electrical current will pass *around* your car and to the ground, but it won’t go *through* the car to the inside.
How to Stay Safe Outdoors During a Lightning Storm
Being indoors is the safest place to wait out a lightning storm, but life happens. If you’re caught outside during a lightning storm, remember these tips, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
If you’re in an open area, crouch down in a ball-like position. Lightning tends to strike tall objects.
Don’t lie down. The ground can carry electrical current.
Avoid open spaces like convertibles, motorcycles, gazebos, porches, and playgrounds.
Avoid concrete floors and walls.
Avoid tall structures like trees, telephone poles, and phone towers.
Avoid water. Stay away from lakes, rivers, and pools (and even the tap water in your house).
Keep reading for more summer safety tips: