Step and touch potential are the phenomena that explain how you could be electrocuted or suffer an electric shock injury from a downed power line, even if you do not actually touch it. You could be injured by stepping into the power line’s electrical current or by touching an electrified object.
Most people think you have to touch a downed power line to suffer electrical shock injury or an electrocution, but the reality is that the ripple effect of the downed power line’s electrical current poses an extreme danger to anyone in the area.
In fact, just being within up to 35 feet of a downed power line can cause you to be electrocuted. That is why so many first responders and family members are injured when they try to help people who have been injured in downed power line incidents.
What is step potential?
Step potential refers to the voltage difference between your feet when you are standing near a downed power line and your feet are in different rings of electrical current with different voltages. The difference in voltage between your feet can cause the electrical current to enter and surge through your body.
In other words, stepping on two different voltages at the same time may electrocute you or cause you to suffer an electric shock.
When a power line is downed, it gives off electrical current which spills out onto the ground, flowing outward and away from the power – creating a type of ripple effect. As might be expected, the power or voltage of the downed power line’s electrical is higher nearer the power line and becomes lower as it gets farther away.
That means that as you walk toward or away from a downed power line – or any conductor of the electricity — you are stepping into invisible rippling rings of electrical current with differing voltage levels. And each step could potentially result in your feet landing in rings of electrical current with different voltages.
Herein lies the danger with this phenomena because the voltage differential between your two feet can cause the electrical current (which is trying to find ground) to enter your body through one leg, surge through your body and then exit the other leg. The result in far too many cases is electric shock or electrocution.
How to measure step potential
Step potential is equal to the difference in voltage given by the voltage distribution curve between a person’s feet when each foot is at a different distance from a downed power line or any conductor of electricity.
What is touch potential?
Touch potential refers to how you can be electrocuted or suffer an electric shock if you touch an object that has been electrified or energized by a downed power line or any conductor of electricity. The electrical current flowing through the object enters your body through your hand and leaves through your feet, causing damage to your internal organs.
How to measure
Touch potential is equal to the difference in voltage between the object that has been energized or electrified by the downed power line and the feet of the person who is touching or otherwise making contact with the object. The voltage could be nearly the full voltage from the downed power line.
Signs of danger
You may encounter electrical step potential dangers as a result of: (1) downed power lines; (2) energized vehicles or tools; and/or (3) energized, grounded trees or tree limbs.
Protecting against step potential
Follow these steps to protect yourself against the dangers of of this phenomena when you are in the vicinity of a downed power line (which could be caused by the power company’s negligently maintained infrastructure, a storm or a car accident that knocked out a utility pole):
- Shuffle away from the downed power line – This involves putting your feet together, keeping them in constant contact, keeping them on the ground at all times (never lifting them off the ground) and shuffling so that one foot shuffles forward along the length of the other foot
- Bunny-hop away from the downed power line – This involves putting your feet together and hopping out of the area
- Call 9-1-1
- Call the power company
Vehicles and step and touch potential
If a downed power line has fallen onto your car and you are inside, then the following tips can help you stay safe:
- If you cannot drive away without going over the power line, stay in your car until the power company arrives and a utility worker tells you it’s OK to step out
- If there is an impending emergency such as a fire under the hood and you must immediately escape, then keep in mind the dangers of step and touch potential
- To protect against electrocution dangers: (1) Do not touch the ground and the car’s metal door frame and/or the car’s shell at the same time (as the car may be a conductor of the electrical current from the downed power line; and (2) Land with both feet together on the ground
- To protect against these dangers, use the shuffle or bunny-hop methods to move away from the downed wire once you are safely out of the vehicle
Need help from an experienced electrocution lawyer?
If you or someone you love is a victim of serious personal injury or death caused by electricity, you can call and speak with Jeff Feldman, perhaps the nation’s most experienced electrocution attorney. Jeff has litigated electrocution and severe shock injury cases against utility companies throughout the country. You can call toll free at (800) 548-0043 for a free consultation.