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  • Writer's pictureKathryn Stagg

Driving in a Pandemic? A Tip for Reducing the Risk of Transmission

Man in car wearing face mask, window down
Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, more studies are being published that shed light on how the virus has been transmitted and how we can combat its transmission in public and private spaces.

One such recent study has looked at how the circulation of coronavirus particles in vehicles can put people at risk.

In an article in The New York Times, Emily Anthes looks at what the study found and what it means for those of who travel by car on a regular basis.

As Anthes and the researchers behind the study point out, cars have been somewhat overlooked in terms of the risk they pose in transmission.

"A typical car... does not carry nearly enough people to host a traditional super-spreader event. But cars come with risks of their own; they are small, tightly sealed spaces that make social distancing impossible and trap the tiny, airborne particles, or aerosols, that can transmit the coronavirus."

The study in question used computer simulation to determine how air flows through a vehicle while it's in motion and how that air flow determines the path of particles. They found that air pressure in a vehicle is lower in the front seats the in the back, which results in air flowing from the back to the front of a vehicle.

In a vehicle where all the windows are closed, about 8 to 10% of the particles that passengers exhale when breathing are likely to reach other other occupants. Considering this result, the second part of the study focused on how opening windows can counteract the transmission of particles from passenger to passenger.

The best answer is the most obvious; driving with all of the windows open sees the rate of sharing particles diminish to the point of insignificance. However, while this may be the best option, it's not always the most practical.

"Because it's not always practical to have all the windows wide open, especially in the depths of winter, Dr. Mathai and his colleagues also modeled several other options. They found that while the most intuitive-seeming option - having the driver and the passenger each roll down their own windows - was better than keeping all the windows closed, an even better strategy was to open the windows that are opposite each occupant."

Opening the window across from you, as opposed to next to you, is more effective because of the way that air flows through a vehicle. However, there are obvious limitations to this, such as occasions when all seats are occupied. In this scenario, however, it is still the safer option to open at least one or two windows as opposed to none.

Another valuable tidbit from the study - and one that can make this strategy more palatable in the winter months - is that opening windows halfway was found to be just as effective as opening them all the way, although opening windows only a quarter of the the way did show a decrease in effectiveness.

While keeping car windows open in February may not seem too pleasant, the research shows that it can be reduce your risk. So, if you are spending any amount of time on the road during this pandemic, it's an option that's worth considering.

For more information on the study, including how it was conducted and more details on the results, check out the original article by Emily Anthes in The New York Times.


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