Since the novel coronavirus pandemic began, you may have been warned to avoid public transportation altogether, given that sharing air with strangers in close quarters is the most common way for SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that leads to COVID-19) to spread. As countries are gradually reopening activities, however, you may feel uncomfortable traveling via buses, or other transportation means because of the potential risk of exposing yourself to infectious airborne particles. If you don’t already own a car, that leaves you with one option — a rental car.

But you’re likely wondering: Are rental cars safe if you use them alone or with family or friends you currently live with? What are the COVID-19 risks associated with lingering airborne particles and high-touch surfaces, including steering wheels, door handles, knobs, and buttons, as well as all those leather or plush surfaces, like the seats and dashboard? You’ve eliminated much of the likelihood of a SARS-CoV-2 infection if you end up in a car alone, but there are still steps that you can take to fully minimize any risks associated with shared vehicles.

If you’re traveling for leisure or to visit friends or family, it’s important to think about how you can reduce the likelihood of coming into contact with others along the way. Try stopping at gas stations that you know will be less crowded, and take all precautions in keeping your hands and belongings clean (including frequent hand washing or sanitizer). Moreover, some countries may require you to self-quarantine when you arrive; be sure to do so and avoid heading to public areas for as long as possible to determine if you show any COVID-19 symptoms. Below, we review the risks associated with shared cars and how you can work to minimize them.

Is it safe to rent a car?

Before you consider making a reservation for a car rental, you should look to ensure that the company has instituted new or enhanced forms of sanitation since the pandemic began. In many cases, rental companies may be working to follow COVID-19 cleaning guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as it relates to eliminating the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Hertz, as an example, announced a new 15-step process for cleaning and disinfecting car interiors between renters back in May; the process includes disinfecting surfaces with agents approved by the Environmental Protection Agency to kill SARS-CoV-2. Similar announcements and programs are being followed by Enterprise, which works through their own 20-point checklist and may “quarantine” vehicles in between renters if necessary, according to its website. Avis, Budget, Dollar, and Thrifty have also rejiggered their cleaning processes as well, per a USA Today report.

How can I safely rent a car during the pandemic?

Much of the risk associated with shared rental cars can be addressed immediately when you pick up your rental car. Before you head out, be sure to have a mask as well as EPA-approved disinfectant wipes and/or aerosols. Here’s a checklist you can work through to keep yourself as safe as possible:

  1. Disinfect touch points on the exterior of the car. This can be door handles, side mirrors, the latch on the car’s trunk, and the gas cap. Keep in mind that the surface in question needs to be wet with disinfectant for up to five minutes in order to be truly disinfected (time requirements may vary based on brand, Forté says). Since these touchpoints may become contaminated again after you move on to cleaning interiors, it might be a good idea to wear gloves atop your clean hands — so that when you’re finished sanitizing, you can carefully remove your gloves into a nearby trash can or into a sealed plastic bag, and then not worry too much about cross contamination afterward.
  2. Immediately roll down your car’s windows. It’s always a good idea to ventilate an interior space, especially if an employee had to drive it out to the lot for you. Keep the windows open for as long as you possibly can (even while the car is in motion later). Providing a fresh air supply works to carry any potentially infectious airborne particles inside the vehicle outside, or displace them from the air with humidity or other natural conditions.
  3. Disinfect all of the driver’s controls. Start with the steering wheel, and then move onto the gear shift. Plus, any other knobs or buttons that are used in driving the vehicle. Don’t worry about using a new wipe for each surface: Forte says that the Clorox manufacturing team has reported that a single wipe won’t carry viruses or germs in general from one surface to another. Germs that transfer onto a disinfectant wipe are killed due to the high concentration of cleaning agents within the wipe.
  4. Disinfect the rest of the dashboard and interior touchpoints. Be sure to pass over the radio, vents, and any other dashboard controls with a disinfectant wipe at least a few times. You may also wipe down passenger controls in the backseat for climate control or entertainment systems if your car has them. All of the door handles inside as well as the window controls (either buttons or levers) need to be disinfected as well.
  5. Wash your hands when possible — and do not touch your face until you do so. Even if you’ve checked off everything on this list, Dr. Kesh explains there may be potentially dried-up SARS particles within porous surfaces of the car (namely, plush seats). Forthcoming research from the National Institutes of Health suggests that the coronavirus disease may be viable on plastic and metal surfaces for up to three days in a laboratory setting, but Dr. Kesh says that current data doesn’t indicate how long the virus can be infectious within fabric. “I think it’s more like 24 hours for fabric or cloth, theoretically, since porous surfaces provide more space for the viral droplets within a particle to dry out after a period of time,” she explains. “If it dries out on kind of a cloth surface, you’re less worried about it being a potential infectious source compared to airborne droplets disbursed by conversation or breathing.” Surfaces within the car that haven’t been perfectly disinfected are only a threat if you touch your face or any mucus membrane with unclean hands. Over time, any living germs within the vehicle from previous occupants will die out, and you won’t have to worry too much about touching seats.

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