As a boy, I was fascinated by the stories my parents told me about a friend of theirs who was killed by lightning. “He was playing football in a storm,” they would say, “when suddenly a bolt of lightning came out of the sky and hit the cleats of his football shoe, killing him instantly. Now go to sleep.”
That made quite an impression on me back then, but I have since learned that death by lightning is statistically far less likely than being the victim of a drunk in a pickup truck. According to the National Weather Service website, there have been 33 lightning fatalities so far in 2009. In the fifty preceding years, there were 3,885, which is about 10% of the total number of people in the U.S. who got hit by lightning.
But here’s something strange about the fatalities: Popular Science magazine recently reported that roughly four out of five victims have been men. I looked it up, and sure enough, 27 of this year’s 33 fatalities were males. That pattern has been consistent for decades. The experts wondered why there was such a significant disparity. One hypothesis was that perhaps male bodies contain more iron than female bodies. Another scientist speculated that since men tend to be slightly taller than women, the bolt would reach them first.
Nope. It turns out that men get hit by lightning more often than women because we’re, uh… not as smart about some things. We tend to engage in activities that put us at greater risk. A woman has enough sense to seek shelter when a storm hits, while a man is determined to finish that round of golf, even if it kills him. Which occasionally it does. As John Jensenius of the National Weather Service put it, “Men are less likely to give up what they’re doing just because of a little inclement weather.”
In looking at the statistics, I noticed that about half the lightning deaths over the past several years occurred while the victim was involved in sports or other recreational activities. Of the fatalities so far in 2009, four were fishing. Others were golfing, jogging, playing baseball, playing soccer, swimming. None were listed as “Inside, staying dry”.
Peter Todd, a behavioral scientist at Indiana University, believes that the difference is rooted in the origins of our species. He says that females have different priorities, such as their reproductive role and caring for offspring. Men, on the other hand, will risk getting hit by lightning to prove to other men — and potential female mates — that they aren’t afraid of danger. I suppose that’s the same rationalization some guys use to justify driving ninety miles an hour in a crowded parking lot, or making homemade fireworks in their basement.
Incidentally, if you’re a male and intend to follow your evolutionary instinct to play golf in a lightning storm, try not to do it in Florida; it has had more than twice as many fatalities as any other state. And let’s face it — the other guys in your foursome have been a lot luckier than you all day long. If someone in your group is going to be struck by lightning, who do you think it will be?