Lowering The Lightning Odds

Just how likely are you to be struck by lightning? If you're a boater in certain parts of the country, more likely than you might think.

By Beth Leonard
Published: July 2014

Every time one of the megamillion lottery jackpots makes it into the news, several articles appear analyzing the odds and proving that you are far less likely to win the big bucks than you are to be struck by lightning. Those articles generally quote the risk of getting struck by lightning as 1 in a million, which sounds pretty comforting. But that's not all there is to the story.

As the chart below shows, your odds of being struck sometime in your lifetime, assuming you live to 80, are 1 in 10,000. Surprised? We were.

Table 1. The Odds Of Getting Struck By Lightning
Source: NOAA
Estimated U.S. population as of 2011310,000,000
Annual number of deaths reported39Number of injuries reported241Total = 280
Estimated number of deaths40Estimated number of injuries360Total = 400
Odds of being struck by lightning in a given year (reported deaths + injuries)1/1,000,000
Odds of being struck by lightning in a given year (estimated deaths + injuries)1/775,000
Odds of being struck in your lifetime (Est. 80 years)1/10,000
Odds you will be affected by someone being struck (10 affected/every 1 struck)1/1,000

Now, just to put this in perspective, 1 in 5 of us will die from heart disease. If you want to reduce your chances of an untimely death, you're far better off cutting back on donuts and hitting the treadmill than hiding under your bed during a thunderstorm. And lightning deaths have actually been declining since the middle of the last century, according to www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov, peaking at 432 in 1943 and dropping steadily to a new low of 23 in 2013 (largely a function of work moving indoors). In fact, annual deaths and injuries have decreased by 40 percent since 2011, so based on that, the current odds of getting struck by lightning over the course of your lifetime might be more like 1 in 15,000. We're willing to bet that you're far more likely to die on your boat from a heart attack than from lightning.

Lightning Fatalities By Activity, 2006-2012 Chart
Source: NSW, NOAA
Figure 1. Lightning Fatalities By Activity, 2006-2012

Lightning Fatalities By Leisure Activity, 2006-2012 Chart
Source: NSW, NOAA
Figure 2. Lightning Fatalities By Leisure Activity, 2006-2012

That said, if you spend your leisure time out of doors, like we do, instead of playing video games, your odds of getting struck are, alas, higher than average. If you spend your outdoor time on the water, like we do, they are higher still. In fact, of the 238 lightning fatalities between 2006 and 2012, 40 of those, or 17 percent, occurred when the victim was fishing or boating. Only eight died playing golf.

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