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Downed power lines can kill

graphic of car hitting powerline

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — The dangers of downed power lines hit all too close to home June 29 when a 54-year-old man was apparently electrocuted in Champaign. He hit a utility pole with his car, got out, and was exposed to live, stray voltage from the downed line and died.

“Although your first instinct might be to get out and run when you see a downed power line, doing so could cost you your life,” says Erin Hollinshead, executive director of Safe Electricity. Incidents with power lines or other electrical sources can break the electrical current’s usual path, making the ground, vehicles, and anything else in its trajectory electrified.

“The only reason you should get out of a car, truck, tractor, or other equipment is if it is on fire or you see or smell smoke. Otherwise, stay put and call 9-1-1,” Hollinshead says. “Knowing what to do in a situation like this can save your life.”

After telling the dispatcher where you are, be sure to report that there is a downed power near or on your vehicle. The same safety know-how applies to other sources of electricity, including a pad-mounted transformer (green box), substation, or other type of electrical equipment or cabinet.

Stray electricity can send electrical current across the ground in a ripple-like effect. Each ring of the ripple represents a different voltage amount. If you step from one ring to another, this is called step potential and it can electrocute you.

Safe Electricity offers these safety tips concerning downed or damaged power lines or other related equipment; in all instances, call 9-1-1.

Do not get out of the car or cab:

  • If you are in a single-car incident with a downed power line.
  • If there are several vehicles involved, even if your car is not the one that struck the pole.
  • If it’s dark outside and you cannot tell if power lines are down.
  • Your tractor or car strikes a guy wire (guy wires are the wires that stabilize utility poles). Under normal conditions, the guy wire is neutral, but if the wire is weakened, pulled out of the ground or otherwise damaged, it could become energized.

Only get out if:

  • Your vehicle is on fire or if you see or smell smoke. If that is the case, fold your arms across your chest and make a clean jump or hop from your car or truck (without touching it), and hop with your feet together at least 50 feet to safety.

If you see an accident that involves a downed power line, do not approach the scene. Warn others to stay away.

For more information about safety around electricity, visit

Source: Erin Hollinshead, Executive Director, Safe Electricity
Writer: Ann Augspurger, Communications Director, Safe Electricity

Safe Electricity is the award-winning, public awareness program of the Energy Education Council, a 501(c) 3 (not-for-profit organization) established in 1952 on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. With offices located in Springfield, Ill., Safe Electricity operates under the University of Illinois Extension and is led by the EEC Board of Directors. Since the Safe Electricity program was created in 2001, it has provided thousands safety-minded resources to its more than 500 utility members from across the country to help save lives and reduce injuries.