Uber, Lyft Full of Germs; Ride-Hailing Services Carry Risks to Health, Safety, Surveys Show

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USA Today

May 13, 2019

By Nathan Bomey

It’s second nature: When your Uber or Lyft pulls up, you hop in the back seat.

Sure, you check that the license plate and driver photo match what’s on the app. But should you also pull out hand sanitizer and sit up front to be safer?

Maybe you should, research shows.

Concerns about cleanliness and the dangers of sitting in the back could give you pause the next time your ride rolls up to the curb.

Experts say that riding in the back seat of a ride-hailing vehicle is germier than a toilet seat and potentially more dangerous than sitting in front.

As millions of Americans embrace ride-hailing apps—and Uber gets ready to become a publicly traded company—the health and safety risks of back-seat riding are becoming clearer.

According to a study by insurance company Netquote, the average ride-share vehicle has about 219 times as many germs as the average taxi, which is cleaned regularly.

It’s nearly three times germier than the average toothbrush holder and more than 35,000 times germier than the average toilet seat.

John Chung’s recent Lyft ride probably qualified.

Chung, a Philadelphia-area resident, was visiting Cleveland on a business trip this month when he hopped into the back seat and discovered fingernail clippings and questionable residue.

“I try not to touch too much, but what are you going to do?” he said, adding that he often feels like he doesn’t have viable alternative options.

The most germs on ride-share vehicles are on the window buttons and seat belts, according to the Netquote study. Door handles aren’t as bad, though they’re still far worse than door handles in personal vehicles.

The Netquote study examined only three ride-share vehicles, three taxis and three rental cars, meaning it’s not a scientific examination of the issue.

We all carry bacteria

Erica Hartmann, a Northwestern University assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering who has studied microbial issues in transportation, said it’s no surprise that ride-share vehicles are a haven for bacteria.

“We carry our bacteria with us everywhere we go,” she said. “So it makes sense that the places where there are humans there are also going to be bacteria. It’s just a fact of life.”

Many of the bacteria are likely to be harmless to humans, she said. However, taking a ride with a stranger who’s sick in a ride-share could expose you to illness, she said.

“Drivers are very aware of damage and visible dirt, but I don’t think many are thinking about germs,” said Harry Campbell, founder of TheRideshareGuy.com and author of The Rideshare Guide.

The American Cleaning Institute, which represents cleaning companies, urged ride-hailing drivers to clean up.

“Drivers should strive to regularly clean and vacuum their vehicle,” said Brian Sansoni, senior vice president of communications, outreach and membership for the organization. “Consider using a fabric refresher or air sanitizer .... Riders can bring along a hand sanitizer or hand wipes if they’re worried about touching too many surfaces.”

Beyond hygiene, rear-seat passengers face other risks that are now emerging in a new analysis.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recently released a study showing that back-seat passengers often are killed in head-on collisions in which the front-seat passengers survive, largely because of a lack of safety advancements in the back seat. For example, seat belts in the back seat do not perform as well as seat belts in the front, placing passengers at risk of serious chest or head injuries.

Taken together, the results suggest that automakers, suppliers and ride-hailing companies need to take steps to address back-seat safety and health issues, Campbell said.

“I’ve been really surprised that more automakers haven’t adapted vehicles for ride-share use,” he said. “Right now vehicles are designed for passengers in the front seat.”

Pursuing solutions

That might soon change.

As ride-hailing apps become increasingly popular, auto companies are beginning to rethink their approach to vehicle design.

For example, coatings supplier PPG is developing an anti-microbial treatment for use in cars and trucks to protect the health of back-seat passengers. The company is examining applications used on fitness center equipment that could potentially be applied to surfaces in vehicles.

Ana Wagner, PPG’s global segment director for automotive parts and accessories, said it’s too early to say when the product could come to the market. “The issue of cleaning surfaces or keeping them clean is something that’s being talked about everywhere,” said Wagner. “We’re looking to see what could come with the vehicle.”

Northwestern’s Hartmann warned that antimicrobial products aren’t always designed well to protect humans. In fact, sometimes they can encourage the spread of antibiotic resistant infections, she said.

Other companies are exploring cleaning solutions. AutoNation, the largest auto dealer chain in the country, said it’s partnering with Clorox to introduce “a revolutionary sanitizing system designed to enable cleaner, healthier, safer vehicles.”

The product, dubbed “PrecisionCare powered by Clorox Total 360,” uses electrostatic technology and Clorox cleaners to kill common germs that cause illnesses. AutoNation is selling the product at its dealerships and is distributing it to other dealers, repair shops, rental car companies and fleet services through a wholesale network.

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