According to the National Weather Service (NWS), the month of July is statistically the peak time of the year for lightning strikes within the United States.
Regrettably, July also averages a fatality every three days in the U.S. by someone getting hit and killed via these merciless electrifying bolts from the sky.
If you have ever driven across the Midwest for a summertime family vacation, the number of times that you seem to see lightning streaks on the horizon is nearly countless. At first, the family members packed into the car or van are excited to witness this quite spectacular showcase of nature’s fury. Gradually, upon driving nearer and nearer to where the lightning is concentrated, the enthusiasm shifts into trepidation.
I think that we all intuitively realize the powerful destructive force that these streaks of electrical ferocity offer.
It is a phenomenon magnificent to see, but exceedingly dangerous to touch.
Part of the reason that July is such a lethal month involves the twofer at this time of the year.
One aspect is the increased frequency of lightning, brought about because of prevailing weather conditions during the summer months, and the other facet is that people tend to go outside for leisure activities in these same months.
In short, anyone caught outside while lightning is crackling and blitzing all around you, well, they are playing with fire, one might say.
Some assert that many of these fatalities and injuries from lightning are generally preventable. It turns out that people often realize that a thunderstorm is approaching, hearing from afar the booms, and can see the lightning bolts, but tend to ignore the warnings of prevailing doom or danger. More so, people seem to misjudge the pace at which the weather pattern can shift and assume that they will have plenty of time to scamper away before the lightning descends upon them.
This lack of immediately seeking out a safe place is considered a primary reason for people getting jammed up about lightning.
Another possibility is that people might believe that the odds of getting struck by lightning is extremely remote. Sure, they can hear the thunder and are awestruck by the flashes of lightning, but it just seems unlikely that out of all the places that lightning might decide to strike the ground, why would it be near them.
No one can know how many people managed to avoid lightning that otherwise might have clipped them, and thus we are only left with the statistical counts of the ones that unfortunately were struck.
Of those getting hit by lightning, estimates suggest that 10% are killed and the other 90% end-up with some form of a physical disability that can range from short-lasting to long-lasting.
Oddly, some interpret that last statistic to mean that they have a greater chance of surviving the lightning strike, albeit with injuries, and so they shrug off the matter and resign themselves to a willingness to incur the physical disability if it comes down to that consequence.
Here’s a handy personal tip: Do not go outdoors with anyone having that kind of distorted mindset if you think there’s any chance of lightning occurring since they are apt to lead you astray.
People often figure that our tiny sized bodies are not much of an attractive allure and will be saved by obscurity, in comparison to other nearby taller or more bulky objects.
This is faulty logic.
People figure they can hide under a tall tree, or scoot into their tent, or even hide in a public port-a-potty set up in a wooded area.
None of those approaches are especially helpful and you are not demonstrably lowering your chances of getting a lightning surge into your body. The stated rule of thumb is that there is no place outside that is safe from lightning, and seeking concealment in portable restrooms, or under picnic shelters, or within baseball dugouts, those are all a false sense of security.
What can you do?
You might remember as a child being taught to do the infamous “lightning crouch” that purports to be the wisest way to present yourself in a lightning storm.
For those of you that did not perchance undergo that standard lecture at summer camp, the notion is that you should try to minimize your height by crouching, and you should try to minimize your contact with the ground by being on the balls of your feet.
The logical explanation for this contortionist posture is that a person standing straight up is taller and more amenable to enticing the lightning, and thus crouching reduces that semblance of being tall. You might be tempted to think that by laying down on the ground you would certainly fully minimize the height-related concerns, but this adds a new problem, namely that more of your body surface is in contact with the earth that is going to readily transmit the electrical charges into you.
By perching yourself onto the balls of your feet, this provides less of your body touching the ground, while the crouching action aids in keeping your overall height relatively low.
It is an uncomfortable posture, hard for many to undertake, and by some cannot be sustained for any length of time, though the logic underlying the basis for it is readily understandable.
Believe it or not, the lightning crouch recommendation was somewhat rescinded, nearly a dozen years ago, when authorities including the NWS reported that people were misinterpreting the approach and taking it for granted as a surefire means of avoiding getting hit by lightning. Supposedly, people were no longer quite as rapidly escaping a lightning-related area and instead relying upon their false belief that the crouch was their failsafe option.
The authorities now insist that you should not get yourself into a situation whereby the crouch is needed.
Oh, but that was always the case.
One can understand the reticence by authorities to not provide a potential means of enabling people to mislead themselves, yet there is also the practical reality that once you have gotten yourself into a dire predicament, and of course you should not have, nonetheless the crouch is something that can be still considered, some steadfastly argue.
Under what kinds of circumstances do people most often end-up getting killed by lightning?
By knowing the types of outdoor activities involved, you can either avoid those situations (which seems silly, since it is more about doing them in safe ways) or be watchful and have a practical plan for what to do if lightning appears anywhere in the vicinity.
Here is the Top 10 list and the average percentage of lightning induced deaths in the given category:
1. Fishing (10%)
2. Beach (6%)
3. Camping (5%)
4. Farming (5%)
5. Biking/Motorcycle/ATV (5%)
6. Boating (4%)
7. Social Gathering (4%)
8. Walking to/from home (4%)
9. Roofing (4%)
10. Construction (3%)
Take a moment to ponder the list (note too that these Top 10 account for about 50% of the lightning-related deaths).
Fishing was the most frequent activity in which a lightning strike led to fatalities. This seems logically plausible since you might be more likely to be fishing in a relatively open area that has no other nearby protective coverage. Being at the beach might seem similar, though perhaps beachgoers are more likely to be near to a beach house and can retreat into the structure.
In any case, there is one item on the list that seems to catch people by extra surprise, and they would not have expected the listed activity to be found on such a list.
Which one is it?
The item indicating lightning strike deaths while biking, or while being on a motorcycle, or when riding on an ATV (these are all included in the fifth item on the list).
Here’s why people tend to be surprised.
Each of those modes of transportation has tires, rubber tires, and for various reasons, there is an overwhelming assumption by the public that rubber-based tires will act as a dampener to prevent the electrical charge of lightning from getting to your body, as though the rubber will absorb the electricity on your behalf.
That’s not how it works.
This is likely why people also assume that if you hide inside a car from lightning, and if lightning strikes the car, the tires of the car are what will ultimately save you from the electrical zap.
Generally, this is yet another of the myriad of false presumptions about how lightning works and what the tires provide.
Here’s what happens when inside a car and the vehicle gets struck by lightning.
First, the lightning is most likely to strike whatever is the topmost element of the car, typically being the antenna, or if there isn’t an antenna than simply the overall rooftop lining will suffice.
Next, the electrical charge passes through the outer metallic shell of the car, and then into the tires, which then passes the charge along to the ground.
The tires are not somehow stopping or defusing the electrical charge, and instead are mainly aiding in shoveling the charge into the earth, partially also making use of the steel belts that are within most tires.
My favorite way to describe this matter is by referring to today’s cars as being a type of Faraday cage.
Those of you versed in electromagnetism might be aware of the work by the British scientist Michael Faraday and his famous Faraday cage in the early 1800s. Essentially, he experimented with electricity and realized that you could be housed within a conductive metal shell that would prevent you from getting electrified. If you want to see a dramatic version of this facet, there are plenty of online videos on the Internet that show carefully orchestrated examples of the Faraday cage principles (please do not do this at home!).
In the case of lightning, some like to use the phrase of cloud-to-ground to indicate when lightning directly emits from the sky and then hits the ground, doing so without striking any intermediaries. The phrase of cloud-to-vehicle, or more likely cloud-to-vehicle-to-ground, can be used to emphasize that the lightning passes into an intermediary, the vehicle, and then dissipates into the earth.
The thing is, there is a lot of powerful destructive force that is being funneled along via the intermediary, and there is usually a price to be paid.
An antenna is almost surely going to get fried and no longer be functional.
The electrical system of the vehicle is bound to also get fried, and either be partially usable or entirely wrecked.
Components of the car might become engaged with sparks or flames, and splinter into zillions of potent and life-threatening fragments, along with being scattershot into action as though coming out of the barrel of a shotgun.
Those tires, which thankfully shunted the electricity for you, might melt or otherwise become damaged and unusable.
If you have windows in your car that are lined with defrosting wires, the electrical charges that flow through those conductors can cause the glass to instantly break and shatter, possibly spewing shards and endangering anyone inside or nearby the vehicle.
As a topper, these numerous and nearly instantaneous reactions of the vehicle to the lightning strike can right away start a fire. This can produce even greater damages and threaten those that are perhaps sheltering inside the car, though if the car was their only viable option to try and escape the full unmitigated impacts of the lightning, they made a likely sound choice and need to then quickly ascertain their next step.
That last point is crucial, namely that despite the potential adverse effects upon the car, the odds are that you will live, so in that sense, the car is a reasonable refuge when no other better alternatives are available.
Just make sure that while sitting inside the car that you are not holding onto any interior metallic components that are connected to the shell of the car, since doing so puts you into the limelight of where that electricity is going want to flow.
There are oddball instances of connecting yourself inadvertently to the shell of the car, such as having a computer laptop in your lap, which you’ve plugged into the car’s electrical system. This kind of electrical umbilical cord can enable the lightning bolt to flow from the shell into the electrical cord and then into your laptop, subsequently shocking you.
Presumably, the odds of all that occurring seem slim. Would you really be using your laptop, sitting inside your car, amidst a lightning storm?
Your best bet usually is to be sitting as safely possible in your car seat, with your hands in your lap, and attempting to minimize your body or appendages touching any potential element that could connect with the shell of the car.
Now that we’ve covered the car-related aspects of lightning strikes, this brings up an interesting related notion.
We are gradually going to witness the advent of AI-based true self-driving cars.
Here’s an intriguing question: What would an AI-based true self-driving car do during a lightning storm and what should a human passenger be doing?
Let’s unpack the matter and see.
Understanding The Levels Of Self-Driving Cars
As a clarification, true self-driving cars are ones that the AI drives the car entirely on its own and there isn’t any human assistance during the driving task.
These driverless vehicles are considered a Level 4 and Level 5 (see my explanation at this link here), while a car that requires a human driver to co-share the driving effort is usually considered at a Level 2 or Level 3. The cars that co-share the driving task are described as being semi-autonomous, and typically contain a variety of automated add-on’s that are referred to as ADAS (Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems).
There is not yet a true self-driving car at Level 5, which we don’t yet even know if this will be possible to achieve, and nor how long it will take to get there.
Meanwhile, the Level 4 efforts are gradually trying to get some traction by undergoing very narrow and selective public roadway trials, though there is controversy over whether this testing should be allowed per se (we are all life-or-death guinea pigs in an experiment taking place on our highways and byways, some point out, see my indication at this link here).
For semi-autonomous cars, it is important that the public needs to be forewarned about a disturbing aspect that’s been arising lately, namely that despite those human drivers that keep posting videos of themselves falling asleep at the wheel of a Level 2 or Level 3 car, we all need to avoid being misled into believing that the driver can take away their attention from the driving task while driving a semi-autonomous car.
Self-Driving Cars And Lightning
For Level 4 and Level 5 true self-driving vehicles, there won’t be a human driver involved in the driving task.
All occupants will be passengers.
The AI is doing the driving.
What will the AI do when encountering lightning?
Before we tackle that question, there is an aspect to consider whether a car ought to be driving amidst a lightning storm.
When you opt to go for a drive, doing so as a human driver, hopefully, you tend to check the prevailing weather conditions in the locale of wherever you are going to drive (I realize not everyone is this diligent). Upon discovering lousy conditions, you might decide to drive elsewhere or postpone your trip.
Thus, the first aspect would be whether the AI is programmed to anticipate facets such as lightning conditions wherever you want the AI to drive you.
Some of the existing self-driving cars do not yet have any kind of pre-check about where you want to go and will obediently drive to any stated destination. The onus is on your shoulders to have ascertained that the place you want to go is essentially viable for driving, rather than having the AI figure this out.
Getting the AI to lookup weather conditions and other factors of the destination and the points along the journey is something that can be somewhat readily programmed. Currently, it is considered an edge or corner case, meaning that it is a low priority in comparison to high priorities such as simply getting the self-driving car to drive safely.
The tougher unsolved matter is what the AI should do about the looked-up conditions.
Suppose the AI has identified that there are reports of severe thunderstorms and lightning in a location that you are wanting to head into. Via the use of Natural Language Processing (NLP), similar to Alexa or Siri, the AI warns you that driving to the destination is dangerous.
Should the AI be able to refuse to drive you there?
Your answer might be that of course, the AI can refuse since it is trying to save your life. On the other hand, you might have demonstrative reasons to proceed.
This is an AI Ethics issue that is among many that have not yet been figured out for self-driving cars, and for which until widespread adoption occurs will likely be hidden from view and remain unresolved (for more about AI Ethics aspects, see my coverage at this link here).
Okay, assume nonetheless that the lightning has suddenly appeared. While riding inside the self-driving car, you might be anxiously looking out the windows, perhaps seeing the lightning as you get closer and closer to it.
Please note that the AI will not have a similar kind of grasp or comprehension about the situation. There is no semblance of common-sense reasoning and nor any measure of sentience in today’s AI (for more on this facet, see my indication at this link here). As such, you cannot assume that the AI will detect the lightning and “realize” that there is danger afoot.
The odds are that the AI will merely via its cameras and other sensors be able to detect that there are bright sudden flashes of light.
Unless the roadway is otherwise not passable and for which the AI sensors can detect as such, the odds are that the AI is going to just keep driving.
You would need to tell the AI that it should pull over to the side of the road or take an upcoming exit to get to a safe place to then sit out the lightning storm.
You can use the self-driving car as a type of shelter akin to what you might do with any conventional car.
Since a self-driving car is loaded with lots of additional electronics and specialized sensors, the chances are that if the vehicle is struck with lightning, the AI capabilities for driving are going to be fried and the car is not going anywhere, though at least it sacrificed itself to save your life.
Someday, if AI is allotted human rights, does this imply that the AI can object to being a sitting duck in a lightning storm and no longer be willing to act as a sacrificial lamb for saving the human passengers (see my discussion about AI having human rights, at this link here)?
That proposition would seemingly be like a bolt out of the blue.