Lightning killing fewer of us, but caution in order

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Lightning safety awareness week was back in June, but Southwest Nebraska seems to be having more lightning events now as we head into a season when large groups of us are outdoors — football season.

“When lightning roars, go indoors” is an easily-remembered phrase, but hard to follow when the home team is down by a touchdown and nearly ready to score.

Thankfully, athletic officials are generally very responsible about the safety of players and fans, and weather delays for lightning are not unusual, especially early in the season.

And, that “lightning roars” slogan is paying off, judging by the numbers.

Once one of the most common ways to be killed by nature, lighting is claiming fewer lives in the United States than ever.

According to an AP story, lightning killed 300 people a year in the 1940s, when the U.S. population was much smaller than it is this year when only 13 people have died so far, a 40-fold reduction. Lightning deaths dropped from 329 in the 1940s to about 98 in the 1970s to average yearly deaths of 31 from 2007-16.

Nebraska lost only one person to lightning from 2004 to 2013. Over the same period, Colorado, with its inviting, high-altitude recreational opportunities, lost 18 people.

It may seem like more people are being struck by lightning, since so many lightning strikes are captured on omnipresent video cameras and posted online.

But increased safety can’t all be traced to a conscious decision. Fewer of us are outside during bad weather, and when we are outdoors, we’re in vehicles with metal roofs, where we’re relatively safe.

And, there are fewer farmers, which were often lightning victims in the past, struck because they were the tallest object in an open field. When they are in the field, they’re in an enclosed cab that will conduct the high voltage away from their bodies.

Plus, victims receive better, life-saving treatment when they are hit by a bolt from the blue. Defibrillators are much more common, as are bystanders trained in CPR.

And, ER doctors are better trained to treat lightning patients, concentrating on neurological damage as opposed to other types of electric shock, which involve burns.

While golfers, swinging what amount to metal lightning rods on open fields, should avoid being out during thunder storms, they’re actually far down the list of people killed by lightning strikes.

An analysis of 352 U.S. lightning deaths from 2006 to 2016 found they were doing something near water, such as fishing, camping or beach activities. Soccer is high on the list as well.

Men are four times more likely to be killed by lightning than women because they are more likely to do riskier things during storms.

July, which traditionally has the heaviest precipitation for the year in our neck of the woods, is the month when you’re most likely to be struck by lightning.

Judging from the forecast, however, it will be wise to keep an ear open for thunder for the rest of the year.

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