Monsoon season is on its way, and that mean thunderstorms…with lightning. Although for most people, the chances of being struck by lightning are one in 600,000, the chances are better (or should we say, worse) in New Mexico, the state with the highest number of deaths by lightning and lighting strikes per capita. Weather patterns and statistics being what they are, New Mexico drivers would do well to know how to best handle summer storms.
Safe Driving in Storms
You don’t have to live through many monsoon seasons to know that the local weather can change in an instant. One moment it’s clear, the next the wind picks up, the sky is black and you’re driving through a downpour. Whenever weather takes a turn for the worse—slow down! Give yourself increased room between you and vehicles ahead because wet roads require longer stopping distances.
Stopping and maintaining control on wet roads depends on the state of your tires. Because monsoon rains come quickly and with force, water often runs off, causing drains to overflow, leaving standing water on pavement. To ensure your tires maintain contact with the road surface, it is vital to have appropriate tread to channel water away and prevent hydroplaning.
It’s not uncommon for the force of monsoon rains to impair visibility, making continuing to drive hazardous. In such an event, pull over to the side and wait for the rain to lighten up…experience will tell you that will only take a few minutes, too.
When Lightning Strikes
New Mexico summer storms don’t just bring hard rains, they come with a light show. What happens when that light show strikes your vehicle or close to it? Well…
If lighting strikes your vehicle…
…odds are that you are safe in your vehicle because of the skin effect—the phenomenon that describes how the lighting current is conducted primarily via the outer metal body of your car. (The skin effect doesn’t apply or provide the same protection in fiberglass-body vehicles.) As long as you do not contact anything in your car that connects to the outside of your car (e.g. window, door and radio controls, gear shifts, steering wheels), you are insulated from the current. So, if you have pulled off the road to wait out a thunderstorm, turn off the engine, put on your hazards and wait patiently with your hands in your lap.
If lightning strikes near your vehicle and downs power lines…
…do not attempt to cross them and drive to safety. Your tires are not likely to provide adequate insulation from that much voltage. If power lines fall on your car, wait inside in the same way you would wait out a thunderstorm—hands in your lap, not touching anything that connects you with the outside of your car.
How your car holds up to such strong electrical current varies. Many cars have minimal surface damage, often just burns on the paint at the site of the actual strike. However, electrical and electronic systems are often seriously damaged, making your car impossible or unsafe to drive. Even if your car starts up and shifts into gear, it’s a good idea to not to. Call for a tow and have your vehicle inspected to make sure it’s safe for future travel.