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Here's what you need to know in order to stay safe when lightning flashes

Q: How often are people or their cars struck by lightning? — M.C.

A: Recently, a woman was driving northbound on Illinois 13 between Lenzberg and New Athens, when her moving vehicle was struck by lightning.

She was hospitalized with tingling in her arm and "a little chest pain" according to News Channel 10. The two children riding in the backseat were unharmed.

On the Fourth of July, three people were injured by lightning strikes during two different fireworks shows in northern Illinois and Chicago.

Lightning strikes cars and people perhaps more than the average person would expect. Some of these strikes are fatal.

John Jensenius, lightning safety specialist for the National Weather Service, said, "We do not track vehicles being struck by lightning, but I do see media reports of vehicles being struck every year."

"The energy/lightning mainly passes around the outer shell of a metal vehicle, leaving the occupants inside safe," Jensenius said. "Typically, a small amount of the energy will pass through the electronics in the car which is often damaged in the incident."

One of the lightning-related myths listed on The National Weather Service website is the tires of cars provide insulation from the ground.

Bicycles, motorcycles, convertibles and cars with fiberglass shells, which all have tires, do not protect you from lightning.

"Lightning never strikes the same place twice" is another widely-believed myth. Being tall and isolated increases the chances of being struck. According to the weather service, the Empire State building experiences an average of 23 lightning strikes per year.

As for people being struck by lightning, The Guinness Book of World Records records Roy C. Sullivan, a park ranger from Virginia, as surviving a record-breaking seven lightning strikes in his lifetime, earning the moniker — "the human lightning conductor."

The weather service estimates lightning strikes about 25 million times a year across the United States.

Jensenius said, "roughly about 30" people die from lightning strikes each year. These deaths are mainly caused by cardiac arrest rather than burns.

"The temperature of lightning as it passes through the air can be 50,000 degrees," Jensenius said. The high temperature is caused because the air is resistant to electricity. The human body isn’t as resistant.

As lightning goes through a person's cardiovascular or nervous system, it doesn’t necessarily heat up the body. However, "the nervous system isn’t used to that electricity," Jensenius said, and it can stop the heart.

The odds of being struck by lightning "in any given year" are 1 in 1,171,000, according to the weather service. For perspective, The New York Post gave the odds of being a movie star as 1 in 1,190,000.

According to USA Today, lightning fatalities were at the lowest ever reported last year. Jensenius said some of the reasons for the lower number reported include better medical treatment, higher awareness of the dangers of lightning and because more people know CPR.

lightning belleville.JPG
Lightning strikes near Belleville, IL. Belleville News-Democrat archives

Lightning safety tips

Here's some things you can do to protect yourself and your family during lightning strikes:

If you hear thunder, go indoors or to your car. One of the weather service's lightning safety tips is: "When thunder roars, go indoors."

Move away from windows or anything that conducts electricity from outside to inside your home, such as plugged-in electronics or metal plumbing. Don't do your dishes or shower during a storm.

Wait 30 minutes from the last thunder sounding before going outside after a storm.

Jensenius said, "In order to be safe, you have to be either inside a substantial building or a hard-topped metal vehicle. In order to do that, many times you have to plan ahead so you can get to a safe place.

"If you are outside, if you hear thunder, chances are pretty good you’re within striking distance of the storm," Jensenius said. "We recommend people stay away from doors and windows because they have metal components."

Doorknobs are a common metal component in doors.

For more information, lightning safety tips, survivor stories, photos and more, go online to www.weather.gov/safety/lightning or lightningsafety.noaa.gov.

Recommended reading

The New York Post used The Book of Odds: From Lightning Strikes to Love at First Sight, the Odds of Everyday Life by Amram Shapiro to obtain the odds of someone being a movie star. It lists the probabilities of every day aspects of life.

Related stories from Belleville News-Democrat

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