Myth Busting Monday: Cars and Lightning

It’s Myth Busting Monday again! Let’s zap this one once and for all…

Myth: Your car’s tyres will insulate and protect you in the event of a lightning strike.

Truth: Choosing to stay inside your car during a thunderstorm is usually the safest option – this much is true. But the protection the car offers has little to do with the tyres – in fact, it’s the metal body of the car that protects you!

“Huh? But metal conducts electricity…?”

Yep! The car’s protection comes from the fact that it is a hollow ‘cage’ made from an excellent conductor of electricity. Lightning is basically a stream of charged particles looking for the shortest path between a storm cloud and the ground. If its path happens to go via you, this is bad news – hence why it’s generally not advisable to be outside in a thunderstorm, and especially not near something tall like a tree that is likely to attract the lightning (and send it via you).

But if lightning hits the top of a car, it will continue to travel through the metal body of the car AND the tyres (and safely around you) to the ground. This phenomenon was harnessed by Michael Faraday, who discovered that a continuous shield of conductive material would stop an electromagnetic field (including lightning and radio waves). He developed the Faraday cage in 1836 to protect electronic equipment from damage and interference.

Incredibly, a person inside a Faraday cage can even touch the metal on the inside of the cage while lightning is striking, and remain unharmed (NB. DO NOT TRY THIS PLS). This is demonstrated in one of the best science shows we’ve ever seen, at the Museum of Science in Boston, MA, back in 2012. The presenter stands inside the cage, nonchalantly running their hands around the metal bars, while the world’s largest Van der Graaff generator zaps the top of the cage with approx. 15 gazillion volts. 10/10 would recommend.

For more on this topic, check out Richard Hammond putting this theory to the electrifying test on Top Gear: https://youtu.be/ve6XGKZxYxA

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