Hailing a taxi or ordering a ride with your phone may have been part of your daily routine — but like most forms of public transportation, services like Uber and Lyft have come under scrutiny in an attempt to stem the novel coronavirus. Public transit systems have instituted new procedures to keep their buses, trains, and ferries as sanitized as possible, including many taxi service providers. But since scientists across the globe have found evidence that suggests COVID-19 is primarily spread in close contact with strangers — talking, coughing, or sharing the same air with someone within 6 feet of you for more than 10 minutes — cars face an added challenge. Taking a taxi is risky not only because there's no way to ensure a 6-foot bubble, but also because not all COVID-19 carriers exhibit symptoms, meaning any of the passengers before you or the driver may be harboring infectious airborne droplets.
Sandra Kesh, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and the deputy medical director at Westmed Medical Group, acknowledges that ridesharing services have implemented new procedures in an attempt to protect passengers. Uber and Lyft have discontinued shared rides and have also encouraged riders to abide by best practices — wearing masks, taking advantage of in-car hand sanitizer when available, avoiding travel if they have any symptoms, and generally staying home. Uber specifically announced a new program in May that requires drivers to take a picture of themselves with a mask on before they begin working. It also has limited passengers to the rear row of seats. Other taxi services across the nation are subject to local ordinances and may require passengers to wear masks, or simply have not allowed drivers to carry passengers at all just yet.
That said, the apparent risks in taking a taxi pushes Dr. Kesh to suggest that riders avoid taxis altogether, especially people who are not using these services for an urgent, essential need. "I think with some scenarios, it's kind of too soon to get back to normal — and this is one of them, unfortunately," she explains. Taking other forms of transportation may allow you to have more space to yourself and avoid sharing immediate air supply. At the very least, asking family or friends to pick you up allows you to have a better sense of their health status, how clean their vehicle is, and who else has been in the car. If possible, try renting your own vehicle, or think about buying a bicycle to help you commute instead.
Below, Dr. Kesh reviews the risks of taking a taxi during the coronavirus pandemic. If you can't avoid it, she also shares her must-follow safety tips to minimize as many of these risks as possible.
What are the risks of using a taxi or ridesharing services?
Here are some of the most significant ways that a taxi may increase your risk to contract SARS-CoV-2, the virus that leads to a COVID-19 diagnosis.
The health status of your driver. There is extensive research suggesting that many COVID-19 carriers don't know they are sick because they don't exhibit any symptoms. These individuals may easily spread coronavirus simply because they are unaware — in some cases, data suggests that this kind of spread may account for nearly half of the cases in an area. A passenger doesn't know whether a hired taxi driver may be sick, or if they're following best practices to limit their exposure to SARS overall. Have they been wearing masks and washing hands frequently? There's no way to know.
Previous passengers before you. The same reasoning applies to those who have been sitting in the passenger seat before you have. You can't be certain whether a previous passenger who may be sick has touched a surface that you'll touch. As opposed to accepting a ride from a family member or a close friend, taxis that are operating currently may well be exposed to more people harboring COVID-19 on a daily or even hourly basis.
The cleanliness of the vehicle. Rideshare companies have been working to provide drivers with cleaning supplies and updated guidance on how to clean their interiors. But Dr. Kesh asks, how can you be sure that your seat has been properly disinfected before you sit in it? Shared surfaces of the vehicle may play host to viable infectious droplets spewed by previous passengers or the cab's driver. Previous research conducted by the New England Journal of Medicine established that SARS can be viable on plastic and metal for up to three days. Dr. Kesh points out that the virus' viability on fabric and porous surfaces isn't clear just yet, but it's highly likely that germs can be viable on a seat throughout an entire day, on which multiple passengers have sat.
Shared air space. Lastly, unless you're driving in a convertible or a lengthy three-row sedan, there's a very good chance you are sharing air in an enclosed space with a driver. Air conditioning and air flow in general may play a role in the spread of coronavirus, and car's AC systems can actually recycle the air inside the vehicle, which may further propel infectious airborne particles throughout the vehicle during your ride.
How can I make taxis as safe as possible?
Dr. Kesh recognizes that essential workers may have no choice but to rely on local taxis or Uber, Lyft, and other ridesharing services. If you must take a taxi, here's a few things you can do to keep yourself safe.
Wear a mask, and make sure your driver does as well. Wearing a mask in an enclosed space is crucial, since it may stop you (or the driver) from spewing infectious droplets into the air around you. A mask or a face covering won't necessarily save you from breathing in these particles, but it's better than nothing at all. You shouldn't feel uncomfortable canceling your ride or politely asking your driver to wear a mask; Uber, as an example, has required both passengers and drivers to do so.
Roll down your windows. It's crucial to avoid stagnant airflow, so ask the driver to lower the windows around you to encourage fresh air flow. "Be sure that the air is circulating within the car with windows down throughout the entire ride," Dr. Kesh advises. If the weather's lousy, drivers can work to keep fresh air coming into the vehicle by disabling air recirculation on their air conditioning controls.
Avoid the front seat, and sit behind a partition if possible. While much current research has been conducted in laboratory or hospital settings, scientists have suggested that infectious particles have the ability to effortlessly travel through the air in open spaces, let alone a vehicle — in one case, viable droplets were shown to carry from room to room. Put as much distance between you and the drive of the vehicle as possible. In some areas, partitions are being installed in cabs that didn't have them previously. While partitions are by no means a failsafe effort, Dr. Kesh explains they may help combat the risk of sharing air. "It's certainly better than no barrier," she says.
Use contactless payment. Or step outside the vehicle before handing your driver cash. Rideshares are already pre-paid, but having the driver turn towards you to accept a taxi fare is a greater risk. Stepping outside to hand cash into an open window lets you avoid direct face-to-face contact.
Bring hand sanitizer, and do not touch your face. Clean your hands as soon as possible after opening doors, touching seat belts and buttons, and exiting the vehicle. The largest risk for contact transmission of SARS-CoV-2 has to do with touching the viable virus on a surface and then rubbing your eyes, picking your nose, or putting your fingers inside your mouth. If you choose to wear gloves, be sure to properly dispose of them after you exit the vehicle, and immediately wash your hands when possible.
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