Last night a man reportedly was killed while peeing on the third rail of the G train in Brooklyn, leading to a renewed debate over the myth that one can actually kill oneself by taking a leak on the super electrified subway track. The report from the New York Post suggests that the man indeed died because his pee came in contact with the deadly rail. "A drunken man was electrocuted and killed relieving himself on the third rail in Brooklyn this morning, sources said," reads the report. But, both the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and law enforcement officials have denied a "whiz-3rd rail connection" to the Wall Street Journal's transportation reporter Tedd Man. So, it sounds more like the man fell while peeing onto the third rail and then got electrocuted and died. But, that doesn't mean it's not possible to die in such a manner. We investigate.
The idea behind the myth makes scientific sense: an electrical current could travel up the stream of urine through one's penis, thus causing a jolt. Or, as a couple of New York City kids put it to a homeless man on the verge of peeing to his death: "Your dick will get blasted, bro." A Yahoo answers commenter also insists the risk is serious, real, and terrifying: "Electricity can arc across gaps in your pee and zap you right in the nuts. Penile electrocution is very painful. And if the electrical current is sustained, your testicles will explode."
There have been plenty of reports of death while peeing, but few have confirmed that the pee-to-rail contact was the actual cause of death, rather than electrocution for touching a 600-plus-volt line. A 1967 news story suggests it happened, but the coroners don't sound certain of the cause of death. "In all probability, he was dead from electrocution before the train ever hit his body," reads the autopsy. More likely, the rail caused a jolt through his fingers and penis, causing him to fall on the rail.
In fact, most of the tales of death by pee carefully word the incident so that either the urine stream or contact with the actual rail could have killed the man. A 1977 court case reads: "At this point, he apparently proceeded into the CTA's [Chicago Transit Authority] right-of-way in order to urinate. In the process of doing so, he came into contact with the third rail, and suffered fatal injuries." That final clause suggests that more than his pee touched the rail. The Daily Mail reported a Polish man died in Britain while whizzing. Authorities, however, found him slumped over the rail, questioning the actual cause of death. An ex-Marine died in Chicago after "climbing on electrified train tracks to urinate," reported the Daily Mail in 2012. But, that definitively said he fell on the rail.
Once, however, a medical examiner cited the phenomenon as a cause of death in a 1991 Chicago incident, suggesting it can happen. While it is possible, a 2009 Mythbusters found it would be incredibly unlikely in practice. When people pee, it often dribbles, as pictured in the GIF from the show at right. To conduct electricity, one would have to reach a League of Their Own stream levels. Certainly, drunken people have very full bladders. But, it would take zero wavering and a hefty go at it. That same MythBusters program says the act has not once led to someone's death in the New York City subway, but that was back in 2009.
In any case, for safety's sake, we'd suggest not peeing on the third rail ever because: Why risk it? Also, peeing in public makes the subway smell worse than it already does.