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Space out and cover up: how to make travelling by car more Covid-safe

Nicola Davis Science correspondent
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Meghan Nash/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Meghan Nash/Getty Images

While the UK is under lockdown, travel for work and other exemptions is still allowed. We take a look at how to stay safer when cooped up together, whether in a taxi or a private car:

Avoid if possible

Avoiding close contact is a key way to prevent infection. As a result, there are rules in place around catching a ride.

“Car sharing is not permitted with someone from outside your household or your support bubble unless your journey is undertaken for an exempt reason,” government guidelines note. The same goes for sharing a taxi.

If you do have to share a ride, for example as part of your work, the guidelines recommend that you stick to the same travel companion each time and keep the group as small as possible. Remember that yourself or others in the car could be infectious without knowing it.

Cover up

It is a legal requirement to wear a face covering in taxis and private hire vehicles, but it is worth donning one whenever you share a ride.

Speaking in a personal capacity, Prof Catherine Noakes, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) and an expert in airborne infections, said wearing face coverings was an important measure.

“It reduces the amount of virus you shed into the air, and of course for the other person it provides some protection against what they might inhale,” she told the Guardian.

Space yourselves

“Travelling in cars particularly is a challenging one, because it is a very small space; it is one of the smallest spaces that we occupy,” said Noakes.

Spacing

But, she added, there are ways to reduce the risk of transmission: “If you sit in the back, diagonally opposite the driver, so you are at the further distance from them, that is probably going to reduce those risks to some extent.”

Ventilation

In a closed space, the concentration of carbon dioxide and other components of exhaled breath – including viral particles – build up over time. That means a good flow of fresh air is crucial.

Air conditioning is useful, said Noakes, but it must be put on the correct setting. “It is absolutely critical that you put it on fresh air mode,” she said, adding that a number of studies measuring levels of carbon dioxide showed that recirculation mode brought almost no fresh air into the vehicle.

While opening all four windows is likely to increase ventilation the most, even opening just two can bring benefits.

“It is better to have two windows slightly open than just one, because you get a better airflow through and it also stops that horrible banging noise on your ears,” said Noakes.

Ventilation

It might seem intuitive that the driver and passenger windows should be open, but a recent set of simulations published in Science Advances suggests it is better to open the other two – at least when it comes to protecting the passenger.

According to the research, the driver and passenger can reduce airflow when seated by open windows, and the recirculating air current can carry particles from the driver to the passenger. When the other two windows are open instead, air is channelled across the back seat and out of the front window, glancing across the passenger in the process – a flow the researchers say might also act as an “air curtain” between driver and passenger.

“I’m not sure that would really be present in reality, but having said that, opening those diagonal windows is probably going to give you the best ventilation through the car,” said Noakes.

Clean up

Washing or sanitising your hands before and after your journey is a must, with government guidelines adding that it is advisable to pay for your taxi ride by contactless payment, or in advance.

The guidelines also recommend cleaning your car between journeys. However, it might be best to wait if the car is not needed straight away.

“If you can leave it a couple of days, then any infectious virus is very likely to die off, and then by the time you do clean it, you are at much lower risk,” said Noakes.

But, Noakes added, it is important to regularly clean “high-touch” surfaces. “The buttons you touch a lot, the steering wheel and things like that,” she said.