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drive, she said

It's a persistent myth that the rubber tires on your car will protect you from a lightning strike or downed electrical wire. With the news full of terrifying storms and tornado watches on both sides of the border, it's a good time to sort fact from fiction and figure out what to do if you're caught in a storm or involved in the aftermath of a dangerous natural or man-made situation.

Your car can be a safe place, but it is the enclosed metal frame of the vehicle that protects you, not the tires. While the metal of the car is containing the electrical circuit you will be kept safe, though electronic components in the car may be adversely affected. Should you touch anything metal inside the car, you may become part of that deadly circuit. A convertible roof doesn't provide the same protection as a hard top.

Power outages are common when the weather goes haywire, but a lack of electricity to buildings masks the fact that those wires, either from transmission lines (most common, pole-type) or distribution lines (those large ones with taller shoulders and legs), might still be live. All could be on automatic switches, so all should be considered live at all times.

Burlington Fire Chief Tony Bavota notes you should also treat all types of lines as dangerous, as cable and fibre optic lines often share poles with hydro lines; to an untrained eye it can be difficult to tell the difference, and they could be jumbled together.

You're heading to the cottage after a storm, and a line is down across the road. Can you drive over it? No. A downed line or any obstacle, such as a sinkhole or deep water, should be avoided, says Toronto Police Const. Clinton Stibbe. Pull to safety, turn around if you can, or back up. Never cross a downed wired; report it immediately.

Nancy Shaddick, communications officer for Ontario's Hydro One, reminds you to stay at least 10 metres back from any downed wire. Electrical charges can spread from the point of contact – the same way you're in danger even at a distance from where lightning strikes the ground, that wire has a circumference of danger around it. Water is an excellent conductor of electricity, meaning large puddles, lakes or even wet ground can intensify that threat.

I asked all three experts to consider the following scenario: you're in your car, and because of a crash or a natural disaster, there's a live hydro line across or under your vehicle. Their replies:

  • Do not get out of the car.
  • Do not touch any metal part of the car.
  • It is safe to use your cellphone to call for help, so call 911 and wait for first responders and hydro technicians.

What if you come across this situation?

"No one should attempt to get a person out of a vehicle if there is any chance, no matter how small, that the wires may be live," says Stibbe. "Emergency personnel are equipped to deal with these situations and anyone attempting to get someone out of a vehicle could put themselves and emergency personnel at risk."

Warn your would-be rescuers to stay back from the car. Anyone touching the vehicle could be electrocuted as the charge currently being grounded by the car now exits through them.

Bavota agrees, noting that even in the event of a fire caused by an electrical charge, firefighters are trained to handle the rescue by first tackling any fire categorized a Class C (electrical) to make it a more manageable Class A (battled with water). Two very different approaches requiring the co-ordination of utility workers, firefighters and police.

Recent extreme weather near Lindsay, Ont., created this condition for a handful of drivers. They did the right thing, staying in their cars until wires were safely removed.

Seem anti-climactic? Consider the scene last August in California when an SUV crashed into a hydrant and knocked down a hydro wire. A 41-year-old woman dashed toward the driver to help him, and was electrocuted as she hit the water.

Another went to help the woman, only to suffer the same fate. With no fire or other evidence of danger, it took witnesses time to understand what was happening and yelling at would-be rescuers turned the scene into deadly confusion.

In all, eight people were injured, one man seriously with electrical exit wounds on his feet suffered when he tried to rescue one of the original women. The driver suffered only minor injuries from the initial crash; the safest place to be was inside that SUV.

Bavota stresses that getting out of the car should be considered only as a last-ditch option; avoid this circumstance at almost all costs. But, what if? What if you've decided this is your only chance to survive? How do you get out of an electrified vehicle?

You must jump clear without touching any part of the car as you exit, says the Electrical Safety Authority, landing on both feet and not stumbling. You must then shuffle away from the car, inching your feet so that neither loses contact with the ground. Walking normally or running would create a break, allowing the electrical current to circuit through you.

The shuffle walk is good to remember but it is imperative that you remind your kids that the threat of lightning is real, and often underestimated. Trees and park shelters aren't safe refuge. Buildings that have metal eaves and downspouts or plumbing and wiring may provide a path for a lightning strike to be grounded, but anything directly wired – telephone land-lines, desktop computers – is a danger.

Scary news images are an excellent reminder to be prepared for anything. You never know.

Tips on hydro safety:

Tips on lightning: