How to Prevent COVID While Traveling by Car

Liz Kim | Feb 05, 2021

During the coronavirus pandemic, it's important not to share space with people who are not a part of your household for an extended period. That's especially true about enclosed spaces, like a car. 

prevent COVID while traveling by car

But what if you have no alternative but to grab an Uber or Lyft, or help an aging parent obtain medical care, or simply give a friend a ride if necessary? How can you better prevent COVID while traveling by car?

Scientists from Brown University think they might have an answer.

Sometimes, a Mask is Not Enough

Although wearing masks can help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, even when two people close to each other have them on, it's possible to exchange the droplets containing COVID. And the more time you spend in a confined space with an infected person, the greater the likelihood that you, too, will become infected.

When you're riding in a car with someone who is not a part of your immediate household, logic dictates that you should open the windows to circulate the stale, potentially virus-infused air with clean air from outside. Brown University decided to study this scenario and recently published the results of experiments that studied airflow within a vehicle and how a driver and passengers can best mitigate the possibility of infection during a shared ride.

Researchers examined the typical seating configuration used with taxi cabs and app-based ride services. A single passenger was seated in the right rear seat of a Toyota Prius, while the driver sat behind the steering wheel. Traveling speed was about 50 mph, and the air conditioning was turned on but was not in recirculation mode, meaning it was drawing fresh air into the system from outside of the vehicle. 

Brown's researchers determined that with the vehicle's windows closed, 8% to 10% percent of the exhaled aerosols, which might contain the coronavirus, could reach the other person with all the car's windows closed. When all of the windows were open, the rate plunged to 3% or less of aerosols reaching the other person. 

But Baby, It's Cold Outside! Isn't There a Better Way?

The study admits that keeping a car's windows open isn't practical or comfortable during the depths of winter. And researchers did find an even better way to maximize airflow in a vehicle to create an invisible barrier between the driver and the passenger. But it still requires open windows, so the answer is no. Bundle up.

The best way to prevent COVID while traveling by car is to have the opposite windows open during the drive. In other words, the front passenger's side window and the left rear passenger's side window should both be open. This action creates an "air curtain" as the car is driving, a river of air that flows through the middle of the vehicle, in essence becoming a barrier that prevents virus-infected aerosols from transmitting from one person to the other. And if you live where it is bitterly cold outside, know that opening the windows even halfway provided the same benefit. 

Unfortunately, Brown did not conduct further studies using more passengers, but the authors of the findings said that the type of car didn't matter. If it has a back seat, the open-opposite-windows method is the most effective.

Some car manufacturers are engineering products to specifically address COVID, such as the Kurumaku air filter from Honda that not only captures droplets around the cabin but can also destroy the virus. Currently, it's only available on a specific vehicle in Japan, but hopefully, the technology will become widely available, and soon.

Summary

In an ideal world, we would be able to wall ourselves away from the outside world to prevent becoming the victim of a pandemic. Realistically, we have jobs to get to and errands to run. Of course, we all know to mask up, sanitize hands and surfaces, maintain social distance, and avoid social gatherings until it is safe to behave otherwise. 

In the meantime, studies like this can help to minimize the chances of infection when it's necessary to share space in a car without someone who isn't a member of your immediate family.

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