About that “struck by lightning” metaphor

People often say; “live for today, you might be hit by a truck tomorrow.”  That doesn’t make me less miserable, just more careful to avoid walking in front of trucks.  But struck by lightning? Yes, that one I’m pretty fatalistic about.  You are walking down the street minding your own business or out playing a round of golf and WHAM, a bolt from the blue and you’re dead.  Most deaths don’t even occur during severe thunderstorms.  Stuck by lightning is a timeless metaphor for how fate or the cruel whims of Yahweh/Zeus/Jupiter/Thor affect us weak mortals.

So 432 people were killed by lightening in America in 1943.  On a per capita basis that would be like 1000 people in 2013.  Exactly 1000 in fact.  On the other hand the population growth has been much more rapid in the risky states like Florida and Arizona, so maybe you’d expect more than 1000 today.  On the other, other hand not everyone is killed instantly, and medical care has improved, so maybe less than 1000.  What would you guess?

I’ll give you a hint.  In 1943 there were 22,727 traffic fatalities.  In 2012 there were 34,080. Because the population more than doubled, the death rate actually fell by 35%.  And people now drive much more, so the death rate per mile fell by almost 90%.  But of course there’s lots of things you can do to reduce auto death rates.  Safer cars, divided highways, drunk driving laws. Back in 1943 cars didn’t even have safety glass.  Lightning strikes?  By the time you hear the boom it’s too late; 186,000 miles per second and all that.

So how many people died from lightning in America in 2013, more or less than 1000?

Twenty three.

PS.  In recent years 82% of victims were men.  More evidence of gender bias in blind fate.



15 Responses to “About that “struck by lightning” metaphor”

  1. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    14. January 2014 at 07:00

    PS. In recent years 82% of victims were men. More evidence of gender bias in blind fate.

    Even god hates men.

  2. Gravatar of Travis Allison Travis Allison
    14. January 2014 at 07:10

    Fewer people working outdoors? More couch potatoes?

  3. Gravatar of Max Max
    14. January 2014 at 07:20

    Decline in kite popularity? More lightning rods?

    BTW, 186,000 is the speed of light (in a vacuum). But it’s not the photons that kill you.

  4. Gravatar of Jim B Jim B
    14. January 2014 at 08:26

    PS. In recent years 82% of victims were men. More evidence of gender bias in blind fate.

    And I was thinking blind fate or a higher probability of standing in an open field while raising a metal rod in your hands? I was close, but I should have thought “being in a body of water with a rod in your hands”. I did a quick Google search on “struck by lightning golfing” and it seems fishermen may actually be the bigger cause. One post on Field and Stream said:

    “Of the 127 people struck and killed by lightning in those 6 years [2006-2012], a whopping 26 of them were fishermen. That’s 11%. Next in line was camping with 15 deaths (6%) and boating with 14 (6%). At the very bottom of the list, surprisingly, is golf, which only had 8 fatalities in 6 years (3%).”

    It also says NOAA made an effort since 2001 to educate golfers as to the risks and lightning deaths during golf have gone down 75%. Fishermen may stay out longer and it probably takes longer to get to shelter for them then golf.

  5. Gravatar of Vivian Darkbloom Vivian Darkbloom
    14. January 2014 at 09:37

    On the other hand, speaking of metaphors and tests of “blind fate” and gender bias, how many people suffered from un coup de foudre in 1943 versus 2013? And, how many of those were men versus women?

  6. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    14. January 2014 at 09:50

    Vivian, Yes, and it all evens out in the long run.

  7. Gravatar of Bababooey Bababooey
    14. January 2014 at 10:09

    “Struck by lightning” is, I think, a metaphor for a rare occurrence. That means you’ve identified one of the rarest literary species: a cliche that is more meaningful now then it was when coined.


  8. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    14. January 2014 at 11:35

    Also a good way to keep up on vodka trivia;


    Dmitry Mendeleyev is renowned worldwide for his fundamental work, the periodic law of chemical elements.

    Among Russians, Mendeleyev is also known as the inventor of the ideal formula for vodka, 40 percent alcohol by volume.

    But perhaps only today, 180 years after his birth, is the full impact of ‘s genius finally being felt, economists said.

    Mendeleyev, born in a Siberian village on Feb. 8, 1834, was more than a leading figure in science. A far-sighted economist with progressive views of Russia’s industrial development, he set Russia’s customs tariffs, proposed the idea of oil pipelines, and jarred 19th-century thinking by suggesting foreign investment could boost the economy.

  9. Gravatar of ChargerCarl ChargerCarl
    14. January 2014 at 14:34

    A lot of people drilling for war in open fields?

    And if you hate lightning you’ll love it here in Los Angeles.

  10. Gravatar of Lawrence D’Anna Lawrence D'Anna
    14. January 2014 at 17:14

    Lightning has to ionize the the air to create a pathway for the current to flow through. It moves a *lot* slower than light.

  11. Gravatar of Brett Brett
    14. January 2014 at 20:35

    I could see the death rate for lightning strikes going down simply because a smaller percentage of the population is working in exposed fields, and because we’re spending much less time outdoors on average.

  12. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    14. January 2014 at 21:05

    Bababooey, Interesting, and I had thought it was a metaphor for a random uncontrollable event.

  13. Gravatar of Sherparick Sherparick
    15. January 2014 at 05:21

    I found that 18.5% of the workforce was still agricultural in 1940 and therefore much more exposed to lighting strikes. http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2012/03/28/the_workforce_in_1940.html Also, a great deal of construction in 1940 that is now done by machines was done by manual labor (and in the South,convict labor placed a large numbers of workers in conditions where those in charge were pretty indifferent to the safety of the those working). http://www-tc.pbs.org/tpt/slavery-by-another-name/media/cms_page_media/128/NEW%20The%20Economics%20of%20Prison%20Labor_final.pdf Also, this was a time without air conditioning in most homes. In the summer most people stayed outside and under shade trees when they could. I think these factors probably explains the difference in the death rate from lighting.

  14. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    16. January 2014 at 06:25

    Sherparick, The rate fell by 98%. The factors you cite might explain a 20% drop.

  15. Gravatar of MoanChomsky MoanChomsky
    31. August 2021 at 17:10

    Lets take that apart. 432/23= nearly 20X less prevalent now, despite the world population size being about 5X more. That is a total of around 100X less people jolted to death than we would expect.

    It could just be that people used to hang out outdoors alot, and less so now. But 100X as much? IDK.

    The female/male asymmetry is could be easy to explain- men are more into the outdoorsy stuff than women, and like golf more, and work as construction workers more, etc. In general, men live an average of about a decade less than women. That also could be described by cultural phenomena- however I believe its more than that. The Y chromosome is absolute shit. By the time you are 50 years old, it is a mangled and unstable version of what it was in our prime. Much more so if you are a smoker. And damage to the Y results in cancer at much higher rates. For reasons that I forget, the X chromosome is far more stable.

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