If a downed wire is on or touching the ground or resting on a vehicle, the ripple effect of ‘step potential’ puts you within rings of danger and death
If there is one thing — just one thing — that I can share from my 35-year legal career as an electrocution attorney who has helped people all over the nation, it is this: Hollywood movies and TV are often wildly inaccurate about portraying the real risks of being electrocuted. Trust me on this one, it isn’t like what you see on TV or in the movies.
Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than when it comes to the real risks of being electrocuted and killed from a downed wire. Most people think you have to touch it to suffer electrical shock injury or, worse, electrocution.
Yet, that isn’t what happens in real life. It isn’t what has happened in many of the electrocution lawsuits that I’ve litigated. What most people don’t know about this really can kill them.
And that’s this: you do not even have to touch or make direct-touch contact with a live wire in order to suffer serious electrical injury or death.
Just being within up to 35 feet of a downed power line, for example walking toward it so you can call for help, can cause you to be electrocuted.
It’s an effect called “step potential.”
As you walk toward the conductor of the electricity — whether a direct downed line or a crashed vehicle upon which the wire has landed — you’re stepping into invisible rippling rings of voltage. Each step, therefore, could potentially land in different voltages. And that voltage differential can then surge through you from one leg, go up your body, then down through the other leg.
Knowing this if you see a downed line can mean the difference between life and death. It also applies if you are an occupant of a car or truck that is in direct contact with a downed power line or wire.
In some of my electrocution lawsuits, victims likely didn’t even know they were within the vicinity of a downed wire when they were killed.
How you step toward or away the source affects the step potential
If you are located within distance of a downed wire — for example, your car struck another car, which then collided with a utility pole that released a live wire — you should first call 9-1-1 immediately to report it as an emergency, then call the power company.
If you’re within proximity of the downed line, here’s how you move in order to get away, using one of two methods:
- Put your feet together — keeping them in constant contact — and shuffle so that one foot shuffles forward along the length of the other foot, ensuring that both feet are in constant contact and always touching the ground.
- Do a bunny hop by putting your feet together and hopping out of the area.
Not sure whether that downed wire is live? Always assume that it is and let the utility company take care of it. Do not risk your life. Do not get closer to take pictures or so you can more accurately report it. It isn’t worth risking your life.
In the vehicle? Here’s how to get out of the step potential
If you’re in the car that has stuck a utility pole or is in contact with a power line, there are some important added steps.
If you can’t drive the car away without going over the power line, stay in it until the power company arrives and a utility worker tells you it’s OK to step out.
If there’s an impending emergency, like a fire under the hood, you can make an escape using the shuffle/bunny hop method — but you must follow a procedure to ensure your safety.
First, open the door but do not touch the metal door frame or the car’s shell, as the metal could serve as a conduit for the downed wire’s voltage.
Next, make a clear jump out of the car, being sure to not touch the vehicle and the ground at the same time with any part of your body or clothing. Have both feet together so that they land at the same time on the ground. If you’re holding a baby, hold him or her closely to you as you jump.
Finally, use the shuffle or bunny hop method to get to safety.Tags: electrocution, Step potential