Why downed power lines typically do not look like what you see on TV or in the movies
Many people ask me what they can to protect themselves if a downed wire falls. After all, I’m an attorney who’s litigated many of these unfortunate electric shock injury or death cases, so I often get questions from friends and clients. But it isn’t like in the movies.
And before we get into the specifics of what a downed power line looks like, it’s probably a good idea to address the words we use. To start, electrocution accidents involving downed power lines that hurt or kill people are often not really accidents at all. They occur because the utility company failed to inspect and repair its power line structure as it was legally required to do, or ignored clear evidence of deterioration, so the wires fall.
The problem is exacerbated because when power lines do fall, many people also don’t actually recognize them on the ground. Again, downed power lines don’t typically look like what you see on TV or in the movies, and people aren’t used to seeing them in such close proximity. And because power lines are not usually insulated, if they’re seen at all in the seconds before an electrocution, they’re often mistaken for harmless cables lying on the ground.
For instance, in my tragic case involving a downed power line that killed a five-year old girl after a severe storm in rural Michigan, the girl’s mother understandably thought the wire was a cable laying across the driveway.
In reality, a fully charged, lethal power line without a coating can look like any wire or cable. And when people see these lines out of the context of being above at pole height, they don’t recognize them to be energized unless they’re sparking, arcing or humming (like they do on TV or the movies). To make matters worse, energized power lines often don’t spark or arc; nor do they make sounds to clue people in.
They lay quietly, a usually deadly hazard for an unknowing person to step on.
The terrible reason utility companies insist “air insulation” is enough to protect people from electrocution or electric shock injury
The utility industry refers to power lines as being “air insulated,” as the power lines are supposed to be suspended and therefore, away from people and animals. But power lines absolutely should be coated or buried to protect people against electrocution and shock injury.
Again, most power lines are uncoated. Some have coating that’s designed to inhibit contact from surrounding vegetation, but this coating doesn’t have any insulating properties and will not protect people from injury or electrocution death.
Insulating the power lines to protect people may seem like a no-brainer. But utility companies don’t want to spend the money to fully insulate them — a prime example of their neglect and priority of profits over public safety. In choosing not to insulate power lines with a coating that can protect against electrocution and electric shock, utility companies are carelessly creating an immense hazard when the wires inevitably fall.
This is the same reason utility companies don’t bury power lines in some areas to protect people and pets. It’s very expensive to install power lines underground. While it’s difficult to bury power lines in some climates and geographies like in Florida, where the water table is below ground, and in rocky areas like in Colorado, where there’s granite, power lines can be buried in most U.S. states. Yet they remain suspended with no protective insulation.
To the utilities in the electrocution cases I’ve litigated, it always becomes a matter of cost; and too many utilities would rather accept the obligation of making a payment in a wrongful death lawsuit so they can maintain deteriorating overhead lines and forgo repair and inspections than spending the money to insulate or bury them in the name of saving lives (as they do in most of Europe today).
The sad fact is, power companies often don’t discharge their obligation to inspect and maintain with any kind of consistency.
That’s why innocent and unsuspecting people often pay with their lives.