How Coronaviruses Can Spread in Vehicles
The problem with cars is that their interiors normally contain many different kinds of surfaces, from leather and metal to rubber and plastic. The virus can spread while sharing airspace with an infected person, the surfaces the person touched, or even the airspace after an infected passenger has left. Numerous studies are being conducted, but some of the early reports suggest that the virus can persist in the air for up to three hours and for two to three days on stainless steel and plastic surfaces. Another study on a related coronavirus that causes SARS found that the virus can survive on "inanimate surfaces like metal, glass or plastic for up to nine days."
Have the Right Tools
While there isn't yet a vaccine for COVID-19 in people, the good news is that it is possible to disinfect and kill the virus on external surfaces. There are several ways to prepare your vehicle to be especially clean and safe during the outbreak. Experts recommend using disposable gloves while cleaning or dedicating reusable gloves for COVID-19 disinfection purposes only.
Most common EPA-registered household disinfectants will work. Here is an approved list of effective cleaners, but be sure to read the labels to make sure the cleaner is safe to use on the different surfaces in your vehicle. We recommend keeping a tube of disinfectant wipes in the vehicle as an easy and effective preventive measure.
The CDC has recommendations for homemade bleach and alcohol solutions given that many brand-name disinfectants have been in short supply.
Focus on Common Vehicle Touchpoints
You'll want to clean the places you come into contact with the most. Besides the obvious places such as a door handle, key fob or steering wheel, the most important part of the interior to keep clean is the dashboard, according to Charles P. Gerba, a professor of microbiology and public health at the University of Arizona. "That's the worst site in terms of total number of bacteria," Gerba said. "Air is constantly being sucked over and circulated inside the car."
Other places to clean include the inside door buttons, seat belts, gear shifters and touchscreens. How often should you do this? While your individual circumstances with your vehicle will vary, the CDC recommends cleaning and disinfecting touched surfaces daily.
The outside of the car is less susceptible to carrying the virus, said Gerba. That's because the sun and outside weather can shorten its life span. However, it is still a good idea to clean door handles and other exterior touch points. Gas pump handles and keypads at gas stations are also locations to be wary of.
There's a chance that some of the harsher disinfectants can dry out the leather in your vehicle. In this case, you might want to use a milder solution of soap and water and occasionally combine it with a leather conditioner. Soap won't kill the germs, but it lowers their numbers and reduces the risk of spreading infection.
Children and the Elderly in Vehicles
People over the age of 60 and those with underlying conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease and cancer have the highest risk of severe disease and death from COVID-19, according to the WHO.
Early studies from the WHO have shown that the disease is rare and mild in children. But kids are often unsuspecting carriers of infection, due to their lack of awareness of personal hygiene. They are more likely to spread it to parents and relatives than become sick themselves.
One common scenario that could cause concern, Gerba said, is a driver who regularly drives children to and from school and may also have elderly people as passengers. Without proper cleaning, the virus can spread to the elderly passengers even if the children are not riding in the vehicle at the same time.
"If you're over 60, or particularly 80, I would take extra precaution," he said. "Wipe it down, especially high-touch areas like seat belts and window buttons."
Car Rentals, Ride-Sharing and Taxis
Anything that comes into contact with a number of people can be a potential source of infection. Car rentals are one that people might not have considered. Certain companies are taking extra steps. In a statement, the rental company Budget pledged to "enhance the techniques used to clean our vehicles after each rental."
In separate statements, Uber and Lyft said they will temporarily suspend the accounts of both drivers and riders if the companies are notified that those users are feeling sick. Both companies are providing drivers with disinfectant, though supplies are limited.
KidsAndCars.org, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting children in motor vehicles, recommends avoiding ride-hailing services completely if possible. If not, passengers should try to refrain from touching surfaces and avoid touching their faces.
Drivers and passengers both should carry hand sanitizer for frequent use, Gerba said. Portable disinfectant wipes help as well. In a situation where riders are consistently getting in and out of shared vehicles, "that's about the best you can do," he said.
To prevent the spread of the disease, riders of public transportation such as buses and trains should wash their hands and practice social distancing, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Many transportation agencies pledged to install additional sanitizing stations and encouraged riders to remain at least 3-6 feet away from one another.
Wipe down areas that you will immediately come into contact with, such as rails, grab handles and seats. Some people use this procedure on planes, but it may be helpful for public transit as well. If this is too much trouble, just be sure to keep your hands away from your face, use hand sanitizer, and wash your hands frequently.
"Good hygiene remains the best defense against COVID-19," Patrick Warren, chief safety officer for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York City, said in a statement. "We also ask our customers to redouble their hygiene efforts, stay home if you are sick, and follow the messaging we have up at our stations."