Stranger Danger: When Driving Goes Viral

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
stranger danger when driving goes viral

As the resident germophobe here (and everywhere else, now and in the past), spotting bacteria and viruses is no difficult task for this writer. It’s easy — they’re everywhere. The outer layer of your average human surpasses the dirtiness of an adolescent mind.

And it’s with this mindset in tow that your author enters a pandemic. Just freakin’ great. Like most normal, well-adjusted people, I like going to bars and public places every once in a while, and try and stop me from picking the best-looking Roma tomatoes out of that grocery store bin that everyone stands over, pawing at them with their filthy hands. I also put a fair number of miles on my luxurious sedan — a once-innocent practice that now carries its own viral danger.

How can a driver stay safe?

Well, as Linda Lovelace once said, it’s hard. Take the other day, for example.

A week-long trip to a far-flung buddy’s place was cut short by circumstances, one of which was the rapidly changing virus situation there and back home. So, on Tuesday, I drove 960 miles in 15 hours to the relative safety of my well-stocked apartment, ready and prepared to self-isolate.


Yes, the essentials are all there.

Between buddy’s place and home lay several stops that couldn’t be avoided: gas stations. One beneficial thing to come from this outbreak is the broad realization that everything a member of the public touches can be contaminated. Like Marxists in academia, viruses thrive everywhere, even at gas stations.

The plan was simple. If I couldn’t pay at the pump (something I normally avoid like the plague), I’d have cash on hand and pay the exact amount in the store, thus avoiding both the debit machine and the pocketing of infected change handed to me from someone who, just maybe, was wrist-deep in his or her nose 2 minutes before I pulled up. (Yes, I could tap the bank card if the machine allowed. It sometimes does not.)

While minimizing — or avoiding — time spent in the store and the interaction with the clerk is good, it’s still necessary to make contact with the pump nozzle. Unlike a toilet flush, dumping a couple dozen gallons of high-test into your tank can’t be accomplished with an elbow or foot. Danger lurks!

According to researchers at the US National Institutes of Health and Rocky Mountain Laboratories (writing in the New England Journal of Medicine), this particular virus can live for up to three days on a plastic or stainless steel surface. Tests are ongoing to determine what ambient temperatures sustain or kill the virus, but let’s assume, in the interest of caution, that in most normal temps this danger enjoys a lifespan approaching 3 days.

Don’t count on UV light, found in sunshine and capable of expediting the virus’ death, to disinfect the surface of the downward-facing trigger, either.

Even if you pay at the pump, you’ll still have to come into contact with the keypad and the pump handle. Using the corner of your wallet can overcome the first hurdle, but you’re on your own for the second, assuming it’s self-serve or nothing. You’ll need to clean that hand before getting back on the road.

How did your cheap and paranoid author navigate this minefield and return home to his selection of low-cost cans? It went like this: If I was paying inside the store, I’d only engage the filler cap, pump handle, and selector button with my right hand. Car keys, by the way, were in my left pocket, accessed by my left hand. Entering the store was accomplished by one finger on the right hand, assuming I couldn’t catch it with my food after a patron’s exit.

Try to keep six feet or more from those patrons.

From there, it was straight to the bathroom to wash my hands. The coronavirus hides its tools inside a lipid outer layer that slides off skin and other surfaces when soap is applied. Wash for 20 seconds, but soap up the tap handle first, as you’re going to have to turn it off when you’re done. Getting out of the bathroom, where doors usually open inward, is easily accomplished with the help of a paper towel (which you can drop into the wastebasket upon leaving) or a piece of your jacket. At that point, you pay via exact cash or tap card. At worst, you’ll have to debit it up and dirty a finger (I sacrifice the pinky) while punching in those keys.

From there, you’re out the door, using your foot, elbow, shoulder, or two fingers pressed into the top left corner of the door (where no one touches). With your clean and unsullied left hand, you grab the keys, unlock the car if necessary, open and close the door, and then awkwardly insert that sucker into the right side of your steering column. Even more luxurious cars (read: not the one seen below) will afford you the luxury of push-button start, so no worries there.

Once inside the car, there’s just one or two fingers to clean — the debit finger, or the two door fingers. This is where an alcohol gel is invaluable. As for the car’s interior, a Lysol wipe works great for sanitizing the brake handle, shift knob, steering wheel, turn signal, wiper stalk, and door handles. Easy stuff, but can you be sure you’ve killed all the (microscopic) bad guys?

Nope. Ever read the instructions on a can of Lysol? You’ll have to make that surface wet for 4 to 10 minutes in order to disinfect, not sanitize. Sanitizing is something you do in your kitchen to avoid salmonella, with the surface staying wet for about 30 seconds. One must disinfect in order to eliminate viruses.

Which means even the interior of your car isn’t fully safe, even after a lemon-scented wipedown. The only solution, the only way to be completely (well, 99.99 percent) sure of safety, is to avoid bringing the virus into the cabin. That means removing as much of it as possible from your hands before entering… and stepping on the gas when the distant form of a hitchhiker appears on the road. Yes, wash those mitts all the time, but treat them like a first date — never assume they’re 100 percent trustworthy. A little paranoia never harmed anyone, but coronavirus will.

Happy carefree driving.

[Images: Nithid Memanee/Shutterstock; Steph Willems]

Join the conversation
6 of 48 comments
  • -Nate -Nate on Mar 19, 2020

    Some are really enjoying the fear factor . -Nate

  • Pwrwrench Pwrwrench on Mar 20, 2020

    Hope this does not freak people out too much. In a conversation with a doctor, long before the Corona virus, we talked about bacterial infection. Specifically about burn victims who's skin, a main barrier to infection, is damaged. In a discussion of cleaning he told me, "you can never completely eliminate all the bacteria. Only lower the count." The goal is to have so few around on hands and medical equipment that the likely transfer is very low. To repeat what I wrote on another thread at TTAC; I now take several small plastic bags with thick paper towels soaked in alcohol. I wipe everything that I'm going to touch, gas pumps, credit card terminals, door handles, and so on. When I'm ready to leave I wipe the parts of the car with a fresh towel along with my hands. Since the alcohol takes several minutes to evaporate I'm thinking that this is about as effective as I can be. Unless they start putting up level 5 decon facilities everywhere. Also many touch screens do not function with gloves. Use the stylus and in case it is missing bring your own. And lastly, most gas stations in SoCal,even though they sell food and are supposed to have toilets, they are frequently 'busy' or 'closed for cleaning' or otherwise inaccessible. So I do not expect to be able to wash hands until I get home.

    • See 3 previous
    • Pwrwrench Pwrwrench on Mar 22, 2020

      Lou_BC, Yup, exactly. The dandelion might look bad, but it does not pose much of a health risk to humans. And Get Off MY Lawn, or I'll spray you with this hose that's full of spiders.

  • Nrd515 I don't really see the point of annual inspections, especially when the car is under 3 years (warranty) old. Inspections should be safety related, ONLY, none of the nonsensical CA ARB rules that end up being something like, "Your air intake doesn't have an ARB sticker on it, so you have to remove it and buy one just like it that does have the ARB sticker on it!". If the car or whatever isn't puking smoke out of it, and it doesn't make your eyes water, like an old Chevy Bel-Air I was behind on Wed did, it's fine. I was stuck in traffic behind that old car, and wow, the gasoline smell was super potent. It was in nice shape, but man, it was choking me. I was amused by the 80 something old guy driving it, he even had a hat with a feather in it, THE sign of someone you don't want to be driving anywhere near you.
  • Lou_BC "15mpg EPA" The 2023 ZR2 Colorado is supposed to be 16 mpg
  • ToolGuy "The more aerodynamic, organic shape of the Mark VIII meant ride height was slightly lower than before at 53.6 inches, over 54.2” for the Mark VII."• I am not sure that ride height means what you think it means.Elaboration: There is some possible disagreement about what "ride height" refers to. Some say ground clearance, some say H point (without calling it that), some say something else. But none of those people would use a number of over 4 feet for a stock Mark anything.Then you go on to use it correctly ("A notable advancement in the Mark VIII’s suspension was programming to lower the ride height slightly at high speeds, which assisted fuel economy via improved aerodynamics.") so what do I know. Plus, I ended a sentence with a preposition. 🙂
  • ToolGuy The dealer knows best. 🙂
  • ToolGuy Cool.