Some experts believe driving is much safer than flying. Picture: Pixabay.
Some experts believe driving is much safer than flying. Picture: Pixabay.

Is it safer to fly or drive? 5 health experts weigh in

By Natalie B. Compton And Hannah Sampson Time of article published Jun 19, 2020

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Despite the number of confirmed coronavirus cases continuing to rise, many countries are easing their travel restrictions. Rene Knott, a morning anchor for the news outlet 5 On Your Side in St. Louis, isn't quite sure what to do or how to travel this summer (US summer, SA winter).

"As we start to talk about trying to get back out again, I had this fear of being out on an airplane, a fear of being in groups," said Knott, 56, who used to take summer road trips from Washington, D.C., with his wife and two kids to visit family in Las Vegas.

"The debate now is what do people think is the safest journey right now, is it by car or is it by plane?" he said. He threw the question out to his more than 19,000 followers on Twitter and said that of the 100-plus responses, about 80 percent were in favour of short road trips and thought they would be safer than flying.

Knott has not made a decision - one complicating factor is that if he visits a hot spot, he might have to self-quarantine for 14 days before going back to work - but if he does take a trip, he knows it will be by car.

Knott and his Twitter followers are not alone in wondering whether flying or driving is safer for travelling during the pandemic. 

The Washington Post spoke with five health experts to find out whether there's a right answer to the questions so many are mulling over.

Expert 1: There's "no such thing as safe travel"

A CDC epidemiologist says there's "no such thing as safe travel". With over a hundred thousand deaths right now in the United States due to the coronavirus, Allison Walker, a senior epidemiologist in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's Travelers' Health Branch, believes "there's really no such thing as safe travel."

Whether you're driving or flying, there may be health concerns due to a variety of factors.

"Different modes of transportation have different risks. When you have people in close proximity and you're not doing social distancing, if people aren't wearing masks or people don't have access to hand washing, all of those things are risk factors," she said. 

When asked whether there was a lesser of two evils, Walker said that both are equally pressing, "because if you're spreading it, someone else is getting it."

Expert 2: Driving is much safer 

Crystal Watson, the senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, acknowledged that the best practice is to keep social distancing and avoid interacting in groups with new people.

"It's also important to be able to maintain your mental health, and part of that is trying to take some time off and maybe going somewhere other than your house," she said. 

Watson said that for those who are travelling, she believes driving is a "much safer" choice than flying.

"You're only in the car by yourself or with a family who you are probably in residence with anyway. And you have minimal interactions with people when you stop to get gas or get food if you go through the drive-through. Those are pretty minimal risks to take," she said. 

And if you need to stop at a hotel along the way, Watson considers it a low risk. "As long as you're not hanging out in the bar or the common areas with lots of people, it's a reasonable thing to do to stay somewhere while you're on a road trip or going on vacation."

Expert 3: Travellers can control the challenges of a road trip 

A risk mitigation company executive believes travellers can control the challenges of a road trip. Robert Quigley, senior vice president and regional medical director at risk mitigation company International SOS, warned that both road trips and air travel carry their own risks.

"Both of them have their challenges, but I think the one you can control a little better is the motor vehicle as opposed to the airplane," he said.

He said he would have liked to believe that airlines would continue practices like keeping middle seats empty, but realises that is not sustainable as airlines have said they will have to increase capacity to break even. For people hitting the road, Quigley recommends doing significant research and planning in advance. He warned that even when driving, travellers will encounter all manner of hazards in the form of gas pumps, doorknobs and other areas that have seen high traffic.

"I think that there's no better time than now to really do your homework," he said. 

Expert 4: Gear up when flying

 The executive dean at Emory University School of Medicine advises gearing up for a trip by plane Carlos del Rio, executive dean at Emory University School of Medicine, who is flying to Miami to see his son in a few weeks believes he will be able to do it very safely. Rio recommends wearing an N95 face mask as well as protective eyewear, which could be goggles or a face shield. 

"Whenever possible, travellers should practice social distancing when they're going through security, boarding, and using airport services and facilities.

"Also carry hand sanitiser and disinfecting wipes," he said. 

Expert 5: One's destination for a road trip is a concern 

The director of Harvard's Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics is concerned with the destination

Marc Lipsitch, director of Harvard's Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, notes there are different safety considerations for road trips depending on the method.

"Regarding road trips, there is nothing inherently dangerous about travel with a household group in a car," he said in an email. "Travel by bus, in particular, may be a more concentrated exposure to a poorly ventilated and dense environment, while train travel is perhaps intermediate in the US."

One's destination for a road trip is another cause of concern to Lipsitch.

"Given the heterogeneity in the epidemic across the country, there is, of course, the risk of going from a low-transmission to a high-transmission community and thus increasing one's exposure," he said.

If you stop at a hotel during your road trip, Lipsitch notes that there is a risk for contracting the coronavirus by touching common surfaces in your guest room.

"While there is, of course, a risk of transmission through fomites (inanimate objects) that could present a potential concern from staying in a hotel, for example, I am unaware of any evidence that this is a large risk," he said. "The relatively modest risk of transmission in households suggests to me that you can't catch this disease easily from sitting on a sofa where a sick person was."

The Washington Post

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