Lightning Strikes

by Russ Roberts on December 22, 2006

in Risk and Safety

Just found a remarkable book, Schott’s Almanac 2007, written by the amazing Ben Schott, author of Schott’s Original Miscellany. It’s hard to describe the book other than to say it’s an extraordinary array of information and data about the past year, along with lots of other stuff thrown in. An example is a chart on p. 264 of annual fatalities in the United States due to lightning, from 1940-2004.  Population has increased a lot since 1940 but fatalities have fallen pretty steadily from a peak of 432 in 1944 to only 32 in 2004. Why? Schott speculates that there’s improved education (don’t walk around holding a sword in the air when there’s lightning), but he makes the very thoughtful observation that the movement from rural to urban living reduces the chances of being hit by lightning. And these data are presented in an elegant chart that is clear and simple. Every page has something interesting.

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Robert Coté December 22, 2006 at 1:55 pm

Lightning kills farmers. Fewer farmers = fewer fatalities. Simple. Same thing applies to all kinds of stats. Transit riders are safer than auto passengers. Why? There is a little about drunk driving and professional transit drivers and such but the real reason is transit is slower. The politics of urban/exurban demographic trends are very politically charged. Just ask anyone in the transportation field about fighting 40 years of air pollution myths especially concerning childhood asthma.

K December 22, 2006 at 2:05 pm

Lightning not only strikes those in open areas such as farmers more often but they also are likely to be alone and not receive care for hours.

A surprizing portion of people survive when care is prompt. Virtually none otherwise.

MW December 27, 2006 at 3:12 pm

Urban / rural split is not quite enough. Lightning fatalities fell more than 10 fold but the rural population and the farm popolation fell by something less than 10 fold (maybe 5 fold?). As mentioned, other factors could be better information (swords in thunder storms though I doubt anyone really needed to be told this) and better emergency care. I doubt these are enough to fill the gap. Another explanation is a change of behaviors due to a wealth effect. Out-of-door workers can now 'afford' to seek shelter earlier. I can imagine a farmer trying to plow one more row before the storm hits. Now, he leaves a larger margin of error because, as our incoems have risen, it just not worth it anymore.

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