WASHINGTON — Thunderstorms laced with lightning regularly roll through the D.C. area in the warm summer months, but not everyone knows the best ways to stay safe.
When thunder is booming and lightning is flashing, the safest place is indoors. But there are lightning risks inside the sturdiest building and a car or truck can provide fairly safe shelter outdoors.
“It’s a very simple rule — ‘when thunder roars go indoors,’ and if people simply followed that, there would be many fewer deaths,” says John Jensenius, meteorologist and lightning safety specialist for the National Weather Service.
Jensenius says there have been 16 lightning deaths so far this year in the United States. In the past 10 years, Virginia has seen four lightning deaths. And Maryland has seen three.
When severe weather nears, when is it best to go inside and make sure the kids aren’t playing outside?
“Lightning can strike 10 miles from a thunderstorm, which is about the distance you can hear thunder. So if you can hear thunder you’re within striking range of that storm and need to get inside right away,” Jensenius says.
Inside during a lightning storm, the key is to avoid anything that could conduct electricity to you.
It’s not a good idea to take a bath during a lightning storm.
“You want to stay away from any plumbing, so you don’t want to be washing dishes or taking a shower,” Jensenius says.
Stay a foot or two away from electrical appliances that are plugged into the walls.
“You just don’t want to be connected to anything that is plugged into the wall,” Jensenius says.
What about the telephone?
“It’s safe to be on a cordless phone or a cellphone, but it’s not safe to be on a corded phone,” Jensenius says.
Lightning could follow the path of an outside telephone wire right into someone’s hand.
And, stay away from doors or windows during lightning storms.
Outdoors, a hard-topped car or truck can provide safe haven in a lightning storm.
“If it is struck, the outer shell of that metal vehicle will conduct the lightning around you and you’ll be safe inside,” Jensenius says.
A common misconception is that a vehicle’s rubber tires providing grounding and thus safety in a lightning storm.
“The rubber tires have no significant impact on lightning at all … many tires are composed partly of metal, often lightning blows out the tires,” Jensenius says.
Atop a motorcycle, ATV or inside a car convertible are not safe places during lightning storms.
Jensenius has analyzed deaths by lightning strikes in the United States through the years and concludes that most lightning victims are struck while enjoying leisure activities.
“People are enjoying the outdoors when they’re struck,” Jensenius says.
Among this year’s 16 lightning deaths, victims were struck while fishing, picking blueberries, horseback riding, hiking and riding a motorcycle.