My dad has a habit of calling to tell me about random things he sees on TV. It is (usually) endearing because I know it means he’s thinking about me. Sometimes it’s to tell me about the awesome play Jimmy Rollins made in last night’s Phillies game; when I lived in Philadelphia it was often to tell me about the latest crime that happened somewhere in the city and to make sure I was still carrying the pepper spray he bought me.
The latest thing he called about was a tidbit he heard on the news: apparently your car is not necessarily a safe place to be during a thunderstorm. Cars have steel-belted radials! he tells me. Like I have any idea what a radial is. So Dad continues to explain — some tires have steel belts in them. If you’re driving while there is lightning outside, your tires might not be grounded because of these steel belts.
We were both a bit skeptical of this. But hey, it was on the news. It must be true, right? Since Penn State has an excellent department of meteorology right here on campus, I decided to investigate further.
I contacted Nels Shirer, an associate professor of meteorology, who has done some lightning research — including mapping lightning clusters.
“The answer is not a simple one,” Shirer starts. No, of course not.
It depends on lots of things, he says, like “the make of the car, whether or not it is wet, and whether or not you are in contact with any electronic devices, such as iPods plugged into the cigarette lighter.”
It never even occurred to me that my iPod could hurt me. In fact, according to the super-helpful web site Shirer directed me to, the National Lightning Safety Institute, you’re not supposed to touch any metal objects in your car during a lightning storm, like a metal door handle or metal radio dials. This makes perfect sense . . . I just never thought about it.
Shirer said, and the web site points out, the best thing to do during a lightning storm is to pull over, turn your vehicle off, and put your hands in your lap.
So the moral of the story is that whether or not you have steel-belted radial tires, your car is probably as safe as it can be, with metal accoutrements. This reassured my father, when I reported back. And I got to hear the story (again) about the time he was working for the New York state highway department and his truck got hit by lightning. But I guess when you’re a dad you have some prerogative to tell your stories as many times as you like. And he was fine, by the way — just a scorch mark in the bed of the pick-up truck.
I wonder what he’ll call about next.
Also, a shout-out to Paul Knight, the Pennsylvania State Climatologist and a senior lecturer in the department of meteorology, for directing me to Shirer. Thank you!