In just a few short weeks, our world has been upended from you-know-what. As the coronavirus pandemic tests our social fabric and discipline, its far-reaching effects on road safety are sobering, surprising, and—believe it or not—not entirely negative.

It will be quite interesting next year when 2020 statistics are tallied to see if the pandemic lowers the overall global road fatality rate—and by how much. I’m guessing that it will, given that many major cities and entire countries have been on lockdown and millions of people forced to stay home from work and recreation. Rush hour has essentially disappeared in places legendary for their congestion, like Los Angeles and New York City. One byproduct is that air pollution has improved dramatically—and quickly—not only in places where commuter traffic dropped but also where concentrations of factories were idled, like in China.

Of course, empty roads mean plummeting economies, and the fallout from social distancing is pummeling the transportation world in wild ways. Like many industries, driver education has been hit hard, having switched almost entirely to online learning. In-car training has all but stopped, and the UK’s DVSA is suspending driving tests until possibly late June, except for critical workers. This has led to suggestions on how the UK’s driving instructors can find temporary employment in delivering groceries and essential supplies, for instance.

Freight truck traveling on highway

More ominous is the increased pressure on commercial truckers, who are being called on to deliver crucial food, medical equipment, and other supplies at unprecedented levels across the globe. Unfortunately, this sudden demand also means that the mandated limits of 14-hour days and certain types of regular breaks have been relaxed in the US for commercial drivers hauling emergency supplies. This is opening the door to more fatigued driving and thus potentially more crashes in their multi-ton rigs. But some truckers are also encountering the closure of truck stops, bathroom facilities, and buffet-style food choices, prompting revolt and resentment.

The rideshare industry has taken a huge hit as well for obvious reasons, with a number of drivers getting sick presumably from infected passengers. With tourism, social events, and restaurants ground to a halt, demand for passenger rides has plummeted, and since gig workers such as rideshare drivers are considered independent contractors, they cannot file for unemployment. While food and grocery delivery opportunities presumably abound, one rideshare driver wrote in his blog that delivery is “the lesser of two bad options” because much depends on the sanitation practices of who you’re delivering for and where and how you deliver the goods (one driver reported delivering to a hospital emergency room where he had to go inside). Do remember, however, that no-contact options are available with all the major food-delivery companies like Doordash, Caviar, Postmates, and Uber Eats.

Food delivery by moped

The effects of the pandemic on rental bikes and electric scooters are more unclear. Some people without vehicles still need to get to work, so they may be resorting to these alternate forms of transportation, and Lime and Bird have both double-downed on their disinfecting measures. But in San Francisco, many of these companies have paused their operations, although the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency has announced that e-scooter rentals and bikeshare are considered “essential” services with city permission to continue operation. Still, city streets aren’t exactly swarming these days.

Polish bus during coronavirus pandemic

As you might expect, ridership on buses, subways, and other public transportation has all but collapsed. In some places, fares are being suspended and passengers instructed to enter and exit through rear doors to minimize drivers’ exposure to the coronavirus. Service on many bus and subway services have been curtailed or even suspended, so be sure to check your local transit schedule before heading out.

On a more encouraging note, automakers around the world are partnering with other companies to use their factories to manufacture masks, ventilators, and other urgently needed medical supplies. In China, where the pandemic is easing, most factories are back to work and consumer interest is growing again in vehicles. Two things are certain: This too shall pass, and once they do, there’ll be pent-up demand in going to places again—with all their benefits and drawbacks.

Cleaning car interior

But for now, more immediate things are more urgent—such as how do I keep my vehicle clean? Whether or not you drive only for personal reasons or for rideshare, here are some tips:

  • The single best preventive measure is not to go anywhere. The second best is to travel by yourself with no passengers. The third best measure is to make sure those passengers aren’t sick, and if they are, banish ’em from your vehicle.
  • Before you start cleaning, it’s worth thinking about all the surfaces you and your passengers touch: exterior and interior door handles, seatbelts and their buckles, gearshift handles, steering wheels (and their control buttons), center consoles, window switches, touchscreens, radio and climate control buttons, door frames, and trunk buttons.
  • Wash your hands with either soap and water or hand sanitizer before you get into your car. The same goes for your phone, especially if you keep it in a dashboard holder.
  • Try to keep your paws off your face. We know it’s hard. Do it anyway.
  • The single best cleaner for your vehicle’s interior is isopropyl alcohol, which won’t damage your car’s wide range of surface materials (although if you’re constantly cleaning leather, try to follow up with a leather conditioning treatment). The trick is to use a solution that contains at least 70% alcohol, or even pure isopropyl alcohol is fine.
  • Don’t use bleach or hydrogen peroxide as these often damage car interiors, and avoid ammonia-based cleaners on your car’s touchscreens, which have special anti-glare and anti-fingerprint coatings.
  • If you don’t have alcohol, washing surfaces vigorously with regular soap and water also helps by breaking the protective envelopes that surround coronaviruses. Microfiber cloths are best because their fine weave helps catch very small particles like viruses and germs.
  • Keep disinfecting (not baby) wipes and sanitizer in your vehicle at all times and leave them out in a conspicuous place so you don’t forget to use them.
  • Clean your car’s surfaces regularly—preferably before and after each trip.
  • Contrary to what you might think, your car’s cabin air filter, even if it’s a HEPA one, has openings too large to prevent the passage of ultra-tiny viruses. So it’s best to keep those wipes and sanitizer handy.
  • Consider the use of facemasks if you have to carry passengers who may be sick. They’re not that effective in keeping out viruses but they do keep airborne droplets from spreading during coughs or sneezes.
  • Wear gloves when you’re handling gas station pumps. And if you don’t have any, wash or sanitize your hands right after touching them.

For more information on cleaning vehicles, check out these excellent articles from Skoda and Consumer Reports.

Pedestrian wearing mask in Melbourne, Australia

A few final thoughts for these difficult times:

  • Don’t speed through the empty streets and highways, as tempting as it may be (police and highway patrol are seeing upticks in this behavior and watching for it).
  • Extra stress may mean you’re indulging more in alcohol, cannabis, and other impairment-inducing substances. Please don’t add to the public danger by going out and driving. Or letting someone else do it.
  • More people may be out walking and biking, especially as the weather gets warmer, so be extra-vigilant in watching for them.
  • If you do see someone speeding or exhibiting rude or unsafe behavior, consider restraint before laying on the horn or resorting to retaliatory behavior. They may be rushing themselves or someone else to a medical facility, they may be an exhausted or stressed healthcare or an essential worker heading to or from a long shift, and they may be someone just really on edge about health, finances, or any number of things. Granted, these aren’t excuses for unsafe driving, and we all need to stay vigilant and safe on the roads, but we should remember to be a little extra patient during these extraordinarily difficult times.
  • And try not to be that person yourself!
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