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As cities and states gradually come back online and open up, more and more people will be using Uber and Lyft again. But just how safe will it be? And how can we make it safer?
From what we know about COVID-19 and the way it is transmitted, being cooped up with a stranger in a confined environment like a car is about the most risky situation you could put yourself in.
Ideally, you want to be in large open areas where there is a lot of air circulation and enough space to allow for proper social distancing. Unfortunately, cars are just the opposite of the ideal.
Making the Best of a Bad Situation
While it is, no doubt, best to stay out of shared vehicles for the foreseeable future, there may be times when it’s simply not possible to do so. For those times, we should plan in advance how we are going to engage in this particular activity.
There are several things we need to mitigate to make traveling in a shared space as safe as possible. Those things are:
- the inability to social distance in the small confines of a car;
- surfaces we’ll have to touch that may have the virus on them;
- lack of air circulation
Masks are a Must
In a standard five-seat Uber X vehicle, it is impossible to social distance from the driver because there is no part of the car where you can sit that is more than six feet away from the driver. So, we’re going to have to look at other means to overcome this limitation.
Uber and Lyft both have enacted a new rule that requires both drivers and passengers to wear face masks. This is a good rule but it must be followed by both driver and passenger to be effective.
The problem with rules enacted by the rideshare companies, however, is that no one from the company is on-hand to enforce them. That leaves enforcement to the drivers and passengers themselves. Some drivers have reported to us that they refuse to wear a mask although the companies are doing all they can to ensure that they do.
In the end, however, there is only so much they can do. Uber asks drivers to take a snapshot of themselves when they first login to the app. The snapshot must show that the driver is wearing a mask and while the analysis of the photo is done by computer, it seems to work fairly well in detecting the absence or presence of a mask.
However, some drivers are telling us that they put on a mask for the photo and then immediately take them off. They don’t feel Uber or Lyft have any right to tell them “what to wear”. On the other hand, many other drivers are complaining that riders refuse to wear masks and there is only so much they can do about it without risking getting bad ratings from riders.
But, if you’re a rider and you want to travel in the safest way possible and a car shows up with a driver who is not wearing a mask, the best thing to do is to refuse to get in, cancel the trip and call for another car. You don’t have to worry about receiving any penalties for canceling the trip due to a maskless driver. Both Uber and Lyft are letting riders (as well as drivers) cancel trips, penalty-free if the other party is not wearing a face mask. You can report this as the reason for your cancellation and you won’t be charged anything.
If a driver who is not wearing a mask shows up, you might be tempted to simply ask him to put one on. However, if he is careless enough to arrive without one, there is a pretty good chance he has been careless with other things as well – like keeping his car sanitized. So, you might want to think twice before giving him a second chance.
Since there is no single silver-bullet solution that guarantees absolute protection from catching the virus, we have to use an arsenal of strategies to give ourselves the best chance against it.
In addition to wearing masks, we recommend opening the windows in the car to improve air circulation. The goal is to have as few virus particles as possible in a given volume of air. The masks help reduce the number of virus particles put into the air and they reduce the distance they are able to travel. So, if we combine mask usage with good air circulation provided by open windows, then the risk of airborne transmission will be reduced tremendously.
The more airflow you have the more likely that any virus particles suspended in the air will blow out of the car altogether or be so diluted that they will no longer be infectious. If everyone wears masks and there is plenty of air circulation, your chances of catching the virus will be reduced to much safer levels.
Keep Your Eyes on the Surface
Airborne transmission is one way the virus spreads, the other way is via surfaces. Virus particles can end up on any of the surfaces of an Uber vehicle you’re traveling in. A passenger before you who may have been infected may have coughed or sneezed into their hands and then used those same hands to open the door. Or the virus particles from their cough, sneeze or even normal breathing, may have floated down and landed on the seats – that you just put your hands on!
To be as safe as possible, it is therefore wise to assume that all the surfaces of the car have been doused with virus particles, and to act accordingly. That means before you even think of traveling with Uber or Lyft, plan ahead. Plan to have plenty of hand sanitizer available so you can grab it and use it as soon as you step out of the car.
You should also be quite conscious of the fact that from the moment you get into the car until the moment you exit and sanitize your hands, you should not touch your face or any part of your head at all.
While we believe traveling in an Uber or Lyft is inherently risky during this time, if proper mitigation measures are put into action, we believe it can be safe and that passengers and drivers will have a relatively low risk of contracting the virus from this activity.
Jonathan Cousar began driving for Uber in 2013 when the ride-hail company first began operations in New York City. He has booked more than 7,000 trips. In 2014 he created Uber Driver Diaries, which was the first blog by an Uber driver describing the highs and lows of driving as well as offering tips and tricks and information on the industry as a whole. In 2016 Ridester acquired the site, and Jonathan began writing full-time about the rideshare industry and the gig economy. He has also done extensive research into driver issues related to pay and working conditions.