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Is it safe to rent a car?

MIT Medical answers your COVID-19 questions. Got a question about COVID-19? Send it to us at CovidQ@mit.edu, and we’ll do our best to provide an answer.

I am wondering if it is safe to rent cars in these times. With the nice weather, I would love to get out of the city to go for a hike or do some other outside activity where I can practice physical distancing easily. However, I don’t have my own car and am concerned about the risk of contracting COVID-19 from a rental, even if the rental company promises it has been cleaned. Would it be safe if I wipe the door, steering wheel, seats, dashboard, and other surfaces with a disinfectant wipe before getting in?

Illustration of a blue sedan on a roadway with mountains and clouds in the background

Getting outside for a socially distanced hike or other outdoor activity is a great idea. And renting a car to get there should be a safe option.

While you seem particularly concerned about contaminated surfaces inside the rental vehicle, that mode of transmission is unlikely, especially given the enhanced cleaning and disinfecting rental car companies now claim to be doing. But even if the car was not thoroughly cleaned, there’s a low risk of becoming infected from a contaminated surface inside the car.

First of all, the surface would have to be contaminated with a sufficiently infectious number of viral particles. That’s unlikely, because the virus degrades pretty rapidly on surfaces — its half-life, regardless of surface type, is measured in hours, not days. But, even assuming there’s a sufficiently contaminated surface in the car, you would still have to come into direct contact with that exact area, transfer a sufficient number of viral particles to your hands, and, finally, use your hands to transfer that virus (again, in a sufficient amount to be infectious) directly to your mucus membranes by touching your mouth or nose (or, possibly, your eyes). Remember, you can’t get the virus just by touching it. You also have to get it from your hands to your respiratory system.

So, while it’s theoretically possible to get sick this way, it’s relatively unlikely. That said, it’s certainly not a bad idea to wipe down the most commonly touched surfaces in a rental car before driving away. Although the risk of infection is relatively low, it makes sense to sanitize surfaces you’ll be touching frequently, like the door handles, seatbelt clasp, steering wheel, buttons, and knobs. To be extra cautious, you might also open the windows and leave them down for the first few minutes of your drive to clear the stale air from the vehicle.

But remember, virtually all COVID-19 infections are spread from person to person, so your major risk in renting a car would be related to interactions with a rental agent or contact with other customers. So, look for a company that has modified its workflow to make the rental process as contactless as possible. And enjoy those outdoor activities at your chosen destination!

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