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Driving With The Common Cold

sneezewhendrivingHeaps of parents heave large sighs of relief when the summer break is over and the kids go back to school.  There are, however, downsides.  Downside number one is that Mum’s Taxi duty kicks back in, especially if school is too far for the kids to walk to but is not so far away that you get a school bus service (as happens in rural areas).  Downside number two is that the coughs and colds start coming back home, especially when the weather seems to read the school calendar and decides to turn cooler the moment term starts.

Driving with a cold is not like normal driving.  You’re not sick enough to avoid driving – it’s just a sniffle, for goodness sake, so you can’t really get out of it.  Take a good bit of paracetamol or aspirin and you’re OK.  Sort of.

It’s a wonder that they haven’t tried to ban or warn you about the dangers of driving with a cold yet.  We all know about not drinking and driving, and the hazards of taking wacky baccy or worse before getting behind the wheel.  For those who wouldn’t dream of overindulging in alcohol prior to driving or getting remotely near any illegal substances, they still warn us about not driving tired, as fatigue slows reaction times and increases the risk of falling asleep behind the wheel.  Driving with a cold has its own hazards and risks.

For a start off, you get that general feeling of lethargy and malaise that creeps in when you are fighting off a virus.  Pain in the sinuses and/or throat (if the aspirin hasn’t quite done its duty) imposes on your consciousness, sucking your concentration.  Sipping one of the traditional remedies for this particular type of misery – a decent slug of whisky or brandy in orange juice – is, of course, out of the question when there’s driving to be done.

You’ve also got the more physical visible effects of a cold.  You’ve got the runny nose, the sneezing, the snot and the coughing to cope with.  These are difficult to deal with when you’re driving, especially in town when the traffic’s a bit heavy.  You feel that drip pouring down your nasal passages and threatening to trickle out of your schnozz.  The traffic is heavy and you need to make that crucial lane change, or you’re part way around a multi-lane roundabout or you’re just coming up to the lights and expect them to turn orange.  Do you go reaching for your tissues or hanky and try to deal with the offending drip?  Or will this take your attention off the business of driving at a critical moment?  Or is it safer to just let the drip cascade down your face (eeeeeewww!).

Sneezing is worse.  As we all learned from those trivial snippets that circulate around the place, it is impossible to sneeze with your eyes open.  You feel that inevitable prickle in the back of your nose, your chest expands as you draw a deep breath for the Ah, then you explode in the Choo, eyes closed and goodness knows what racing out of you at a fair clip (popular wisdom has it that a sneeze does about 160 km/h; Mythbusters puts it at 54 km/h – faster than you ought to be going in heavy traffic, anyway!).  During that split second, your whole body is concentrated on the sneeze, not on the road.  There’s no way you could react if someone raced across the intersection or slammed on the brakes in front of you.  If you’ve covered your sneeze with the crook of your arm the way that the health boffins tell us to, you’ve only got one hand on the wheel at the time.  If you haven’t, then you spray virus-laden moisture all over the steering wheel and possibly the inside of the windscreen.  (Rub a bit of hand sanitizer over the wheel – something we probably all ought to do regularly anyway, when you consider how often we touch it).  And let’s not even think about the thick yellow snot stage of a cold…

Coughing is probably an even worse hazard, especially if you get that dry tickly cough that just won’t go away and leaves you in uncontrollable paroxysms of hacking away again and again.  Medications that control this sort of cough usually come with warnings not to drive or operate heavy machinery afterwards.  However, uncontrollable coughing fits lasting a good ten seconds or more don’t exactly make you the most alert and responsive driver.  Pulling over to the side of the road until your lungs have settled down might have to be the safest option.

So what’s a responsible road user to do?  The obvious answer is not to drive at all when you’ve got a cold and to use this as an excuse if possible.  However, we all know that there are times when you can’t plead the common cold as a way of getting out of your obligations.  You have to pick up the kids from school or your friend from the airport.  You have to drop off that important package.  You have to get that big job finished.  So you have to drive.

sneeze duckThe best options are to take it slowly just in case, take routes that avoid high traffic if possible and keep your eyes open for handy places to pull over.  Practice controlling coughs and sneezes before you have to do it in a critical situation.  And keep the box of tissues on your lap for easy access.

Don’t forget to clean up the used tissues, and to disinfect the steering wheel and gear change knob when you’ve finished driving.

Safe, healthy and happy driving,



  1. sandy says:

    When I feel a sneeze coming on while driving, I keep one eye open with the thumb and index finger. This way only one eye closes when the sneeze comes. Easy!
    Not quite so easy on a motorcycle, though, with a helmet and sunnies on the face!

    February 27th, 2015 at 10:23 pm

  2. Megan says:

    I didn’t even get started on the horrors of sneezing inside motorbike helmets…

    March 3rd, 2015 at 5:34 am