These days, most people wouldn’t dare leave the safety of their homes without first donning a face mask or some sort of face covering. Be it a surgical mask, an N95 respirator, or a DIY cloth mask, the covering provides the best defense (aside from social distancing) against infection from COVID-19.
However, reports of masks allegedly causing car accidents (like the one that took place in Lincoln Park, New Jersey back in April) have made some people think twice about covering their nose and mouth while driving.
So let’s settle this once and for all—is it safe to wear a mask over your face while you’re on the road?
Wearing a Mask While Driving: Can it Really Cause Car Accidents?
On April 24, 2020, a New Jersey resident strapped an N95 face mask onto his face before hopping into his Mazda CX-5.
He was the vehicle’s sole occupant.
Several hours later, the driver lost consciousness on the road and his CX-5 crashed into a pole, totaling most of its front end. Fortunately, the Mazda compact crossover’s safety features helped prevent any serious injuries.
Investigators found no evidence that the victim had been driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. They theorized that the N95 face mask may have contributed to the accident, either by preventing the driver from getting sufficient oxygen or by trapping carbon dioxide inside the respirator.
“While we don’t know with 100% certainty, we do know that the driver had been wearing an N95 mask inside the vehicle for several hours and ultimately passed out while operating the vehicle,” explained a representative of the Lincoln Park Police Department in a Facebook post.
Study Finds That Respirator Masks Can Impact Work Performance
A 2016 study on the impact of wearing respirator masks while carrying out a task revealed that they produced negative effects on a person’s work performance. However, the extent of the impact depended on a variety of factors, including the length of time the person wears the mask while performing tasks, the level of exertion required to complete the task, the person’s physical fitness, and more.
While the study states that “respiration can limit work time when respirators are worn,” driving a personal vehicle does not necessarily involve the kind of work-related physical exertion described. However, one interesting thing that could help make a case for mask-related impairment when driving is the possible degradation of vision.
According to the study, “there is a natural tunneling of vision” that comes with excessive physical exertion, but that “degradation of vision due to respirator use during high exertion has little effect on the ability to complete the required task… [except in] a situation where dangers can come flying from all directions, there may be difficulty recognizing peripheral threats.”
It’s important to note, of course, that this study observes the effect of respirator masks on the performance of tasks within professions that require them, such as in the medical field. This means that it does not prove anything regarding the safety of wearing masks while driving.
It merely provides some insight as to the possible impact of masks in prolonged or physically demanding activities.
Should You Wear a Face Mask While Driving?
The coronavirus can infect a person by entering through the nose, mouth, or even the eyes. Droplets carrying the virus travel through the air, propelled by the patient’s breathing, coughing, or sneezing. Experts believe these droplets can cover distances of up to six feet.
So, to answer the question—if you have the car to yourself, or are joined by healthy members of the same household, you don’t need to wear a mask during your drive. However, if you’re not alone in the vehicle, such as in the case of ride-sharing or carpooling, you’ll have to wear a face mask for the duration of the ride.
Vehicles with enclosed passenger cabins have fairly tight seals. As long as you keep the doors closed and roll up the windows, the droplets shouldn’t be able to get through.
You also won’t have to worry about the infectious particles coming through your A/C or heater. While your vehicle draws air from outside, its air filtration system will block virus-laden droplets alongside air pollutants and dust. Newer models also recycle a greater portion of the cabin air rather than pull fresh air from outside the car.
Do Health Experts Recommend Wearing a Mask While Driving?
As of writing, neither the World Health Organization (WHO) nor the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have provided recommendations on wearing face masks while driving your own personal vehicle.
Nevertheless, the CDC does specifically endorse wearing cloth face coverings when using public transportation or ridesharing and taxi services. They also officially recommend that people wear face masks or some type of face covering in all “public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.”
Types of Face Masks
Before you put on your face mask, keep in mind that masks come in three types: surgical masks, respirators, and DIY cloth masks. Each type delivers a different degree of protection against infection.
When you hear the term “face mask,” you probably think of the surgical masks worn by health professionals. These masks trap bacteria piggybacking aboard aerosols and liquid droplets from the mouth or nose, such as the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19.
While they protect the wearer, they mainly benefit other people.
Manufacturers produce different subtypes of surgical masks suited for specific medical procedures. They include dental, medical, surgical, and isolation procedure masks.
The more delicate the procedure, the more capable the mask designed for it.
These wearable air filtration devices protect you from breathing in air with dangerous substances or particles like toxic chemicals and microorganisms. Respirators either screen the air for toxins or supply you with clean air from an external container.
Particulate filtering face-piece respirators fall under one of seven types. The most numerous type is the N95 face mask, which screens at least 95% of airborne particles.
The N95 respirator can block the droplets carrying the COVID-19 coronavirus. Understandably, health professionals want their hands on as many N95s as possible.
DIY Cloth Masks
The limited supply of surgical masks and N95 respirators (and the intense demand) has led medical authorities to urge people to make their own face masks from household items and easily available materials.
As long as you maintain social distancing, these face masks will suffice.
Do Face Masks Disrupt Your Breathing?
Face masks can make it harder for you to breathe. Respirators often cause this problem, although surgical masks and even homemade masks can also stifle their users.
The N95 respirator does its job of filtering air so well that it reduces the oxygen that enters it or traps carbon dioxide within its confines.
Nonetheless, don’t dismiss the usefulness of face masks. They help keep you safe from infection during the current COVID-19 pandemic—but you need not wear one all the time.
You can enjoy a mask-free drive if you go by yourself. Just remember to put the mask back on before you roll down the window or open the door when interacting with people in public areas, such as getting takeout and curbside pickups.