My story this week for CNBC will have you reaching for the hand sanitizer next time you hail a taxi, rent a car or use a ride-hailing service such as Uber or Lyft because a recent study found that – no surprise – the surfaces passengers come in contact with most often are full of germs.
A swab-carrying team from insurance comparison site NetQuote took samples from seat belts, door handles and window buttons on three random taxis and ride-hailed vehicles and the steering wheel, gear shift and seat belts in three random rental cars.
The testing was done in South Florida, and while testers expected taxis to yield the highest amount of bacteria, when lab results came back with counts for the number of colony-forming units (CFUs) and bacteria present, it was actually ride-hailed cars that turned out to be the germiest.
The study found more than 6 million CFUs per square inch on average, while rentals averaged a much smaller amount of 2 million CFU/sq. in. Taxis had an average of just more than 27,000 CFU/sq. in.
“To put it in perspective,” the report notes, “rideshares averaged almost three times more germs than a toothbrush holder,” the study said, while the number of microorganisms in both rideshares and rental cars was more than those found on toilet seats and in coffee pot reservoirs.
The research team did not single out which ride-hailing companies it tested, “in the interest of not characterizing specific companies unfairly,” according to a spokesperson.
An Uber representative said the company doesn’t directly inspect cars for cleanliness. However, Uber said its two-way feedback system — where riders and drivers rate one another after each ride — is the main method through which vehicle cleanliness is noted and addressed. If a driver’s car is dirty, they’ll likely get poor ratings and hear about it from local Uber teams, the spokesperson added.
No one from Lyft responded to my request for comment.
Not all germs are harmful, of course, but high bacteria levels increase the chance that harmful microorganisms are present. And some potentially harmful germs, such as bacillus, cocci and yeast, showed up repeatedly in the samples.
Although taxis were the cleanest rides of the three tested, they were by no means free of germs.
The swabs taken in taxis showed that the most germ-filled surfaces were seat belts, with 26,000 CFU/sq. in. Meanwhile, seat belts in rideshares had 38 times more bacteria.
Taxi door handles had 1,570 CFU/sq. in., around 55 times more bacteria than in a typical car door handle, the study notes, while taxi window buttons were surprisingly clean, with just 23 CFU/sq. in.
In the rental cars tested, both the steering wheels and gear shifts had more than 1 million CFU/sq. inch, while the seat belts showed a relatively low rate of 403 CFU/sq. in.
How can you avoid the germs?
“When you rent a car, take a moment to wipe key surfaces such as the steering wheel and gear shift with a soap-based wipe before you touch them,” the report advises. “And once you leave the cab or rideshare, wash your hands as soon as possible — and avoid touching your face until you do.”
There are plenty of products you can carry to help fight germs too, including the Clean Well sprayer, an all-natural, alcohol free, version popular with people looking for something as an alternative to Purell, said Paul Shrater, co-founder and COO of Minimus.biz, a site that sells travel-sized products.
“One thing to note is that once you call something ‘sanitizer,’ ‘antibacterial’ or ‘disinfect’ it is actually considered an over-the-counter drug, and regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration because you are making specific medical claims,” said Shrater. “That’s quite different than something that just claims to ‘clean’ like a regular soap, so if you are really looking to kill germs, look for something that has one of those phrases,” he said.