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You're not safer crouching: Six things you didn't know about lightning

You're not safer crouching: Six things you didn't know about lightning
Lightning strikes north of Gillette, Wyo. (Daniel Brenner / Gillette News Record)

1. Lightning deaths in the U.S. have almost disappeared over the last century, from more than 432 deaths in 1943 to a record low of 23 in 2013.

Colorado got hit with an unlikely double tragedy last weekend when two visitors, on separate trips, were struck and killed by lightning.

How unlikely were those deaths on Friday and Saturday? Between 2003 and 2013, only 18 people were reported killed by lightning in Colorado.

Overall, lightning deaths in the United States have plummeted since the early 20th century, when hundreds of Americans used to be killed by strikes per year.

Lightning fatalities declined to their lowest recorded mark last year when the National Weather Service reported 23 deaths, down from 48 deaths in 2006.

Researchers have attributed much of that huge drop to Americans moving from the countryside to cities and suburbs after the Great Depression and World War II.

“If you go back to the 1940s where you were seeing 300 [deaths] a year, you had a lot of small-time farmers sitting on tractors, and they accounted for quite a few," John Jensenius, a lightning safety specialist at the National Weather Service, said. "You also had corded phones in all the houses, and in rural areas that may not have had the electrical wiring and plumbing" of modern homes that can channel energy from a lightning strike more safely into the ground.

2. Men are four times more likely than women to get killed by lightning strikes.

Of 261 people killed by lightning strikes between 2006 and 2013, 81% were men, according to the National Weather Service.

Only two of the 12 people killed so far this year have been women. In 2014, men have been killed while riding a motorcycle, doing roofing work, picking blueberries and fixing a car, among other activities.

Researchers have found that men are most likely to get killed during their leisure time, most often while fishing. Among athletes, more victims were killed while playing soccer, not golf, as the stereotype often goes.

“It boils down to behavior," Jensenius said. "Men are involved in activities that maybe put them more at risk [like sports]. At the same time, I think men are less likely to take protective actions to get inside. You’ll find that still about 80% of the beach fatalities are men."

3. Florida is the nation's most dangerous state for lightning and July is the most dangerous month.

The weather service says that 70% of lightning fatalities occur in June, July and August.

And Florida has had the most lightning deaths, 46, between 2004 and 2013. That is more than double the number killed during the same period in the next-highest state, Texas, with 22.

California, by comparison, the nation's most populous state, has only had seven deaths reported in nine years.

“Florida, they have a long lightning season. It starts much earlier than the rest of the country and lasts longer," Jensenius said, adding, "They get more lightning per square mile than any other state."

4. Don't stand next to a tree during a lightning storm and don't stand out in the open either. Also, don't lie on the ground. And crouching doesn't really make you much safer. Basically, if you're outside during a lightning storm, you're in trouble.

That's because lightning doesn't just hurt people by directly striking them in the head, though that does occur occasionally.

Here are the five ways you can get hurt in a strike, according to these National Weather Service graphics:

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Lightning

Ground currents (No. 3) are actually responsible for the greatest number of fatalities and injuries to people, according to the weather service.

That's right: Lightning can travel through the ground and up your legs, which is why you're better off not lying down -- it makes your body a better conduit for the electricity, Jensenius said.

The weather service also stopped recommending the "lightning crouch" in 2008 because officials didn't think people were much likely to be safer than if they were standing.

"It’s so insignificant that it isn’t worth crouching," Jensenius said. "We just want people to get to a safe place. In order to do that, sometimes it requires them to plan ahead."

Seeking shelter in a house or building is the best action. Having rubber-soled shoes and tires is not enough to provide lightning protection, officials say. But getting into a hard-topped vehicle with a steel frame offers increased protection -- if you’re not touching metal.

5. If you can hear thunder, you're in danger of getting hit by lightning.

Virtually all lightning strikes occur within a 10-mile radius of a storm, which is also the distance at which you can hear thunder, Jensenius said.

"If you’re outside when you hear thunder, you need to get inside right away," Jensenius said. “Don’t wait for that lightning, just go ahead and get inside and be safe. When thunder roars, go indoors. There is simply no safe place outside when a thunderstorm is in the area.”

6. Your odds of getting hit by lightning in a given year are only about 1 in 1 million or 2 million.

Which is still way, way, way, way, way more likely than you winning Powerball.

Follow @MattDPearce for national news

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