Are Dogs in Your Car a Distraction?

Pet Related Distracted Driving

Holly E. Lewis

GMI® Juvenile & Pet Products

On a recent trip home from the veterinarian, I was pulled over for speeding in a small town because I was talking to my dog, Lassy, who was in the back seat. Attempting to calm her after a round of shots while driving, she was a brief distraction and I lost track of how fast I was driving.

In a recent interview with Kentucky State Police Commissioner, Rodney Brewer, he recounts an incident involving a father and his teenage son who were involved in a collision. After the investigation was completed, it was determined that the collision was a result of swatting a wasp on the windshield- a distraction that we have probably all experienced. The father was killed.  

Thanks to news coverage, blogs, PSA’s, etc… we are hyper aware of the dangers of a quickly growing form of distracted driving –Texting and Smartphone use.  Comparatively little has been written about another source of distracted driving -the family pet.

It is estimated that there are over 78 million dogs owned in the US (according to the American Pet Products Association 2011-2012 National Pet Owners Survey, 46.3 million U. S. households own at least one pet, a large percentage of them owning at least one dog.) In the 2012 Summer Pet Travel Survey conducted by PetRelocation.com, only 12% of respondents stated they DO NOT TRAVEL WITH THEIR PETS — leaving a whopping  88% of pet owners that do.  Whether it is for a quick trip to the supermarket, a day trip to the local State Park, or a two week trip to the beach, hundreds of thousands of dogs are “coming along for the ride!!” 

So, it is not surprising that there has been an increase in distracted driving incidents involving pets. Although there is not a specific measure for pet-related distracted driving (it is classified with other distractions such as eating, map reading, tuning the radio, putting on make-up or reaching for an item) what is unmistakable is that the number of people traveling with their pets is growing in record numbers.  The organization Paws To Click, who’s mission is to “inspire every pet owner to travel responsibly with their pets,” estimates that an accident occurs every 18 minutes because of a loose pet in a vehicle

A dog in the car, whether you admit it or not, is a distraction. Taking your attention away from the task of driving even for a few seconds can result in a serious accident. KSP Commissioner Brewer is passionate about this growing problem. “Distracted driving continues to be the leading contributor to motor vehicle crashes throughout the Commonwealth [of Kentucky]” he wrote in his Oct, 2012 blog, It Can Wait.  “At 55 mph a vehicle travels the length of a football field in 4.6 seconds. That is like driving 100 yards – essentially blind.”

Daryl Nike driving 4 Best

Are you guilty of any of the situations mentioned in a 2011 AAA / KURGO  sponsored  survey? Think about how long the attention of these drivers was on their pet, and not on driving.

  • 23% of dog owners said that they had used their arms to restrain dogs while applying the brakes in the past year.
  • 17% admitted to having a dog in their lap while driving.
  • Almost 20% of drivers admitted taking their hands completely off of the steering wheel while trying to keep a dog out of the front seat.
  • 18% admitted reaching into the back seat to interact with their dog while driving.

 How about some of the more unlikely situations?

  • Feeding or watering your pet while driving.
  • Taking a picture of your pet while driving.
  • Cleaning up after your pet gets carsick.

Believe it or not, all of these pet interactions were responses to questions on the survey.

Another hazard of unrestrained pets in a vehicle??? We have all experienced coming to an unexpected stop (or “slamming on the brakes”) while driving. Typically, our purse, coffee, duffle bag or briefcase has gone flying into the dashboard or floorboard (sometimes accompanied by some rather choice words…) Take a minute and imagine your family pet flying into the dash. For the same reason you “buckle up” your kids, you need to restrain your pet in a moving vehicle. Consider the safety of all of the occupants of your car. Jennifer Huebner-Davidson, AAA National Traffic Safety Programs manager says, “An unrestrained 10-pound dog in a crash at only 30 mph will exert roughly 300 pounds of pressure, while an unrestrained 80-pound dog in a crash at only 30 mph will exert approximately 2,400 pounds of pressure.” In even a low-impact, low-mph crash, your dog can become a projectile, endangering everyone in the vehicle, including your pet.   The danger is evident even in the insurance industry. Contributing Editor for Liberty Mutual’s “The Responsibility Project”, Andrea Bennett wrote about an extreme case of distracted driving in her April, 2012 Blog- The Danger of Driving with Dogs. The article mentioned a South Dakota woman who was pulled over because she was driving with 15 cats in her car! Apparently, she didn’t notice the patrol car because several of the cats were blocking her rear window.  Imagine the chaos if the cats had caused a high speed collision!

 A number of states have begun to pass legislation to create penalties for driving in varying situations with unrestrained pets in the car. According to an ABCNews.com, June 2012 article, “Drivers in Maine, Arizona, Hawaii and Connecticut may be ticketed or cited for distracted-driving if they are carrying their pet in their lap while driving.  Rhode Island and Oregon are considering doing the same. A law currently on the books in New Jersey states:

”Carrying animal in cruel, inhumane manner; disorderly persons offense;  A person who shall carry, or cause to be carried, a living animal or creature in or upon a vehicle or otherwise, in a cruel or inhumane manner, shall be guilty of a disorderly persons offense and punished as provided in subsection a. of R.S.4:22-17.”

 The fines associated with this “Cruelty to Animals” charge in New Jersey can range from $250 to $1,000 and, possibly up to six months in jail. The same state has a pending bill that speaks specifically to Unrestrained Pets. The synopsis reads that the bill “Establishes requirements for pet restraints in passenger automobiles for dogs and cats; establishes failure to comply with requirements as a motor vehicle offense AND an animal cruelty offense.” 

 So, what options do we have when it comes to the important task of restraining your dog in your vehicle? It’s important to evaluate the options best suited for your situation.  Some of the options available today are: pet seatbelts, crates, harnesses and travel barriers.  

If you travel frequently with the family pet, a high quality metal barrier, like the PetShield Travel Barrier– distributed in the US by GMI® Juvenile and Pet Products, is a practical choice.  Travel Barriers come in a variety of styles, materials and sizes, are generally easy to install and adjust (some with no tools required) and can easily be taken out of the vehicle when your pet is not “along for the ride.”  It gives your pet the freedom to move, keeps them out of your lap and keeps the other occupants of your vehicle safe while on the road, especially in the event of an accident.

 A travel barrier like PetShield, might have prevented a high profile 1999 incident involving famed author Stephen King. King was hit head-on by a van, and almost killed while walking along a road near his summer home in Maine. The driver of the van was reportedly trying to keep his Rottweiler out of a cooler full of raw meat in the back seat. 

KSP Commissioner Brewer emphasizes, “There are a myriad of things going on inside of a vehicle. It takes all of our senses and abilities to focus on the task of driving. Anything that minimizes distractions inside the vehicle is welcome in this day and age.”

 Drive Smart! Restrain your pet!