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How risky is sharing a ride?

June 12th, 2020  |  Auto

Should carpooling, Uber and taxi rides be a thing of the past during COVID-19?

Rideshare and cab companies operating in Canada are retooling their apps and services to help stop the spread of COVID-19 as the economy gradually reopens.

Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc., for example, have launched measures including masks, limits on numbers of passengers and sanitation reminders to keep both drivers and riders safe.

Canadian Uber drivers, couriers – and their passengers – were required to wear masks as of May 18. Drivers won't be able to pick up customers until they have verified they are wearing a mask via photo-recognition software built into the Uber app.

Drivers also have to agree to a series of terms promising that they don't have COVID-19 symptoms, have disinfected their vehicle and have washed their hands. Drivers and couriers will have access masks, hand sanitizers and vehicle disinfectants Uber has purchased for them.

Passengers and drivers will be able to cancel rides if the person operating or entering the vehicle doesn't wear a mask and if someone removes a mask partway through the trip, and will have an option to notify Uber about the removal when they rate the ride.

Wear mask

Rival service Lyft said every Canadian rider and driver will soon be required to self-certify that they will wear a mask throughout their ride, are symptom-free and will follow local health official guidance related to COVID-19.

Anyone who does not agree to those terms will be unable to request a ride or drive with Lyft.

To make following the new policy easy, Lyft is distributing masks to drivers in a handful of markets, including Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver.

The City of Toronto published guidelines for taxi services May 13 which highlight respiratory and hand hygiene etiquette, environmental cleaning and disinfection of vehicles and additional prevention methods.

But what about giving your neighbour a ride to the grocery store, or letting a friend borrow your car?

Health experts generally advise against it. But, like many coronavirus-related scenarios, determining the probability of infection from carpooling isn’t black and white.

There are numerous variables: who is in the vehicle, how big it is and whether you’re making other stops – something that increases risk factors.

“If the person you’re driving works in an office with one other person versus somebody who works at a meat-processing facility, the risk in that car is going to be dramatically different,” said Craig Jenne, a microbiologist and infectious disease researcher at the University of Calgary, told Canadian Press. “If you stop to get takeout food, well now you’ve increased the risk in the car as well.

“So, it’s little things we don’t think about that actually have a huge potential to influence risk and outcomes.”

Be cautious

Zahid Butt, an infectious disease expert and professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, told Canadian Press it’s best to be cautious, regardless of the scenario.

If the person doesn’t live with you, you probably shouldn’t drive around with them.

Butt and Jenne both say the duration of the trip doesn’t necessarily matter, though the longer you spend with an infected person the more likely your chances of contracting the virus.

An infected person that sneezes in your direction within minutes of the trip could also result in transmission rather quickly. Allocating the passenger to the back seat also won’t help much if the distance between the people in the vehicle is still less than two metres. That rule applies regardless of vehicle size.

“The further away somebody is the less (is the) likelihood that something can be transmitted in the air, but that’s by far not a foolproof safeguard,” Jenne said. “You can’t simply say if you sit in the back row, you’re far enough away.”

Jenne says face masks, when worn by both the driver and the passenger, can minimize risk if you do decide to travel in a car with others.

Risk diminishes

Other types of vehicle-sharing bring different risks:

  • Borrowing a car from a friend can be dangerous. However, experts say risk diminishes once you disinfect high-touch surfaces like the steering wheel, gear shift, radio knobs, door handles and rear-view mirror.
  • Time deactivates the virus. Allowing days between switching drivers reduces the chances of picking up the infection from the car.
  • Many health experts suggest avoiding taxis and ride-sharing services. But if you do have to use them, wear a mask, don’t touch your face in the car and sanitize or wash your hands when you get out.

Maintaining a physical distance is still the best approach, the experts say.

With most public transit systems not operating at full capacity, Butt and Jenne say it’s more likely to keep a safe distance on a bus or subway now than in a private vehicle.

To reduce the risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19, Health Canada recommends everyone – no matter what mode of transportation you choose – should use good hygiene, which means washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, coughing or sneezing into your arm and avoiding touching your face.

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