Because it’s not always practical to have all the windows wide open, especially in the depths of winter, Dr. Mathai and his colleagues also modeled several other options. They found that while the most intuitive-seeming solution — having the driver and the passenger each roll down their own windows — was better than keeping all the windows closed, an even better strategy was to open the windows that are opposite each occupant. That configuration allows fresh air to flow in through the back left window and out through the front right window and helps create a barrier between the driver and the passenger.
“It’s like an air curtain,” Dr. Mathai said. “It flushes out all the air that’s released by the passenger, and it also creates a strong wind region in between the driver and the passenger.”
Richard Corsi, an air quality expert at Portland State University, praised the new study. “It’s pretty sophisticated, what they did,” he said, although he cautioned that changing the number of passengers in the car or the driving speed could affect the results.
Dr. Corsi, a co-author of the op-ed with Dr. Allen last year, has since developed his own model of the inhalation of coronavirus aerosols in various situations. His results, which have not yet been published, suggest that a 20-minute car ride with someone who is emitting infectious coronavirus particles can be much riskier than sharing a classroom or a restaurant with that person for more than an hour.
“The focus has been on superspreader events” because they involve a lot of people, he said. “But I think what sometimes people miss is that superspreader events are started by somebody who’s infected who comes to that event, and we don’t speak often enough about where that person got infected.”
In a follow-up study, which has not yet been published, Dr. Mathai found that opening the windows halfway seemed to provide about the same benefit as opening them fully, while cracking them just one-quarter of the way open was less effective.
Dr. Mathai said that the general findings would most likely hold for many four-door, five-seat cars, not just the Prius. “For minivans and pickups, I would still say that opening all windows or opening at least two windows can be beneficial,” he said. “Beyond that, I would be extrapolating too much.”