Riding Out an Electrical Storm

We delved into a few urban driving legends last week. Let's pick apart two more: the safest place to be during a lightning storm is in your car, and red cars attract more speeding tickets than less-colorful vehicles.You've undoubtedly heard this saying. But you might not know the real reason why it's safer to be in a car than being outside during a storm."It's not because of the rubber tires, as people often claim," said Daniel Davis, a physicist who narrates the Boston Museum of Science's famous lightning show. "You're safe riding inside the T, for example, and the T has metal wheels. You're very safe inside a plane. Most commercial airplanes are struck by lightning once a year on average and there's very little damage. They're airborne, and the rubber tires have been pulled up into the fuselage."Cars and other metal structures are predominantly safe havens from lightning for two distinct reasons, Davis said. First, they are great conductors of electricity. Second, when cars and the like are struck by lightning, the current stays on the outermost surfaces of their metal frames. No matter where you touch inside the car, you won't get zapped."The charge is pushed to the outside skin of the conductor. It's called a skin effect," Davis said.The science behind this phenomenon goes something like this, explains Davis: A bolt of lightning might last but a second, but during that moment, the intensity of the current fluctuates several times. The current might start at 100,000 volts, jump up to 1 million volts, then slide back down to 500,000 volts, all within a second. The fluctuations create a magnetic field in the object that's being struck, such as your car, and that magnetic field pushes the current to the outside surfaces of the object."We do a very similar demonstration at the Theater of Electricity in the Museum of Science," Davis said. "We have a [human-size] metal bird cage with one-quarter-inch-thick iron bars that's struck by our 1-million-volt Van de Graaff generator. Visitors regularly touch the inside of the cage as it's being struck and they don't feel anything. Certainly, they are not harmed."Davis added a few points of caution, however. A car will conduct the electricity from a lightning strike with the windows open or closed. But if you were to stick out your hand, the charge would likely jump to your skin.While being in a car is safer than being outside during a lightning storm, it's probably only slightly safer than being in a house. (A house's electric wiring and plumbing will soak up the charge from a strike.)Likewise, you might be "marginally safer" in a larger vehicle than, say, a Mini Cooper, according to Davis.

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