Car Laws & Safety

How To Tell If Your Car Was Struck By Lightning

Static electricity is the imbalance of energy that causes your child’s hair to stand on end when they rub a balloon against it. Right before lightning strikes, this same phenomenon will occur!

While we all know that it is not safe to be outside or in a pool during a lightning storm, an unsuspecting place where you can also be struck is in your car!

However, if you are caught in a lightning storm when driving your kids home from school, what do you do in order to keep your family safe and how can you tell if your car was struck by lightning?

If your car was directly struck by lightning, the top three indicators would include your antenna being damaged, the electrical system malfunctioning or failing completely as well as your tires going flat almost immediately.

An incidence of broken windows and a stopped engine are other signs. However, if it was a low-intensity strike, you may only incur burn marks to the vehicle’s exterior. It is always recommended to get off the road and into a safer environment when you find a lightning storm overhead. 

The Science Behind A Lightning Strike

First and foremost, your vehicle is designed to protect you from a lightning strike, in most instances. However, this comes with one very large caveat — the car needs to have a hardtop, the windows and doors must be closed and there needs to be no damage to the integrity of the car’s exterior. Broken windows and even cracks in the glass can be a point of entry for lightning. 

While most people believe that the tires are what protect you and your car from this bolt of electricity, it is actually the framework of the car that does the heavy lifting. When your car is struck by lightning, the metal casing essentially works as a Faraday cage.

This is a conduction barrier that helps to block out electricity coming from an outside source. Again, this is assuming that your vehicle’s exterior is in a good state and the windows are sealed. 

However, if you are sporting a convertible, a Jeep Wrangler, or another vehicle that has a soft top, you are vulnerable to this weather phenomenon interrupting your drive and impacting your safety. Not only can it shatter the windows, but it can fry your car’s electrical system, blow out the tires and even cause your car to catch fire. 

IMPORTANT NOTE: Newer and more affordable vehicles tend to be made with less metal and more plastic-type materials. This lessens the car’s ability to work as a Faraday cage, in turn, decreasing your ability to stay safe.

Lightning Impacts On Vehicles And The Passengers Inside

The incidence of lightning striking a vehicle is low, but when it does occur it can have detrimental impacts on the individuals within and nearby the automobile.

A study conducted on the correlation of lightning and the occurrence of injury or death between the years 1980 and 2007 found that the structural integrity of a vehicle does not completely protect you from a stroke.

Researchers found “76 events of people inside fully enclosed metal-topped vehicles when struck by lightning”. During these events, there were four deaths and 77 injuries.  

Moreover, there were another 36 events that involved lightning while in direct contact with the vehicle. This involved exiting the car, conducting maintenance, rolling up the windows, and leaning on the automobile. In these events, there were nine deaths and 27 injuries.

For parents, this means that it is best to wait things out in the grocery store, rather than racing to the car and trying to load everyone in the vehicle. While this seems like a quick and easy task, it only takes a second for lightning to strike.

In the majority of these events, the lightning strike either hit the car’s antenna or the vehicle was located near a tall object such as a tree, power pole, or stoplight.

What this means is that even if the car is brand new and in perfect working condition, if the right atmospheric elements are in place and the vehicle happens to be in the perfect location, lightning can strike. 

How To Tell If Your Car Was Struck By Lightning

Depending on the entry point and the intensity of the strike, the signs that a lightning strike has hit your car can range from superficial damage or a totaled vehicle.

Moreover, lightning can render any vehicle inoperable. This includes gas, diesel, and electric-powered cars. Some of the top indicators that a strike has occurred include:

  • Scorch or burn marks
  • Fried Antenna 
  • Damage to the electrical system (electronics)
  • Tire Damage
  • Shattered windshield or windows
  • Engine malfunction
  • Damage to the engine
  • Brake malfunction
  • Power lock failure
  • Airbag deployment
  • Fire Ignition
  • Injury to the passengers

Lightning Storm Safety

While the likelihood of lightning striking your vehicle and causing irrefutable damage is minimal, it is always best to err on the side of caution. When the right ingredients are in place, anything can happen. Here are the best ways to stay safe during an inclement weather event.

Find An Alternative Shelter

The most ideal location to be in during a lightning storm is a secure building. That means one that has the windows and doors closed. If the option is available, pull over and wait out the storm in this type of structure. 

However, we do not always have the luxury of finding a safe home or business to stay in while on the road.

Thus, if you find yourself away from civilization, pull your car over to a safe area and turn it off. If you have to stop on the side of the highway, put your emergency lights on to ensure that other cars can see you.

WHAT NOT TO DO: NEVER go under a tree, power pole, or another tall object. These are lightning magnets. Even parking your car under these markers makes you a potential target. 

Do Not Touch Conductive Materials

Your main goal when trapped in a lightning storm is to stay low to the ground and away from tall or metal objects. This includes parts of your car and home.

If you have to remain in your vehicle, make sure that you and your kids keep your hands in your lap. The gear shift, steering wheel, door handles, and seat belts all have metal components.

Moreover, if you are taking shelter in a mobile home or camper, avoid touching the framework of the vehicle. Additionally, if you or your kids have devices that are charging in the car, unplug them immediately and avoid use until the storm has passed. 

Wait Out The Storm

If alternative shelter is unavailable, then wait out the storm in your car. For teachers, parents, and kids riding on a school bus, make sure to place your hands in your laps and lift your feet off of the floor. While a school bus will likely fare better in the instance of a lightning strike, the main component of the vehicle is metal, which can transfer the electricity to you. 

How To Keep Your Family Safe If A Lightning Strike Occurs

First, remain calm. Then, call 9-1-1 on your cell phone. Keep your hands away from any metal parts of the vehicle and wait for help to arrive. Until the electricity leaves the metal framework and enters the ground, it is not safe to exit the vehicle. 

However, if it was a high-intensity charge and you start to smell smoke or burning rubber, it is important that you get out of the car as it is likely that there is a fire under the hood. Be cautious when touching your seatbelt, handles, or car door.

If you can open the door using something that is not conductive and avoid actually touching the sides of the car, that is your best course of action.

Next, find shelter immediately. If none is available, then crouch down close to the ground and hug your knees. Your main initiative is to take up minimal surface area and to be as low as possible. 

Lastly, if you feel like you may have been struck by lightning while taking shelter in a vehicle, make sure to get checked out by a health professional. Symptoms of a lightning strike include tingling in your arms and elbows, ringing of the ears, headache, markings on the skin, shortness of breath, and an irregular heartbeat.

Frequently Asked Questions

If a thunderstorm is off in the distance, but the sky is clear over me, then I am safe, right?

No! Lightning can strike a person, vehicle, or object up to 10 to 15 miles away from the actual storm!

In order to determine the distance you are from the thunderstorm, you can use a simple math equation. Wait to hear a clap of thunder, then start counting. For every five seconds that go by, the distance is equivalent to a mile. 

Therefore, if you count to 15 in between the two thunder roars, you are three miles away from the storm. If this is the case, then it is best to put a pause on your travel plans until you are out of lightning strike range. This is important to teach your kids as well. It is an easy math lesson that could save their life!

Does car insurance cover lightning strikes to a vehicle?

Vehicle repairs following a lightning strike can cost thousands of dollars. Replacement of the vehicle can cause even more of a monetary strain. Thankfully, most auto insurance plans cover lightning strikes under their premium policies.

However, this will vary by plan and location. It is important to reach out to your insurance carrier to confirm the details of your coverage.

For those people who reside in Texas and Florida, lightning is much more likely to strike. This is especially true during the Summer months when thunderstorms are more frequent. 

Final Thoughts

Lightning is an extremely powerful weather phenomena that account for an average of 49 deaths each year in the United States and hundreds of injuries. Every meteorologist will tell you that when thunder roars, go indoors!

Take this piece of advice. It can not only save you and your family’s lives, but it can also save your vehicle from incurring damage as well. Lighting damage is a lot worse than hail damage

This giant spark of electricity is a dangerous, yet beautiful occurrence that is tied to a lot of myths. Do your research before assuming that those old wives’ tales are correct. Moreover, always check the forecast before heading out on the road. 

Finally, for the parent who wants to stay extra prepared, consider keeping a set of walkie-talkies in the car. Options like the Midland T20X4 X-Talker not only have long-range capabilities, but they send out NOAA weather alerts. This small device can provide you with important safety information. 

It is also an effective method of contacting help when your cell phone is out of range. What many people do not realize is that cell towers can go down during big lightning events.

Ensuring that you have the ability to communicate with emergency responders as well as receive updates on changing the weather patterns can be a lifesaver in an inclement weather event!

Welcome to my car seat blog! As a mom of 3, I put together with other hard-working moms a highly informative one-stop car seat resource, full with many reviews and buyer guides. I hope you find it invaluable. Thank you for trusting me & my team! - Keren