Christina Selter cringes when she sees a dog hanging his head out of the window of a moving car or sitting on a driver’s lap. She has the same reaction when she sees someone’s canine companion jumping between the front and back seats. The nationally recognized pet-safety expert is all too familiar with the dangers and distractions posed by dogs who aren’t buckled up when they’re riding in a vehicle.
“Unrestrained pets can cause accidents,” says Selter, founder of the California-based educational group Bark Buckle UP. “I can think of two accidents in the past year that were caused by [unrestrained] dogs in the front seat. In one, the owner looked over at her dog and, in a split second, hit a driver in another lane.”
The margin for error is indeed very very small. According to the American Automobile Association (AAA) Foundation for Traffic Safety, drivers who take their eyes off the road for just two seconds double their risk of becoming involved in an accident.
Georgia coroner Vernon Collins can’t shake the images of a 2010 head-on collision that claimed the lives of two women and a dog. Collins says that one of the drivers, who was apparently distracted by the Chihuahua-mix on her lap, swerved and crashed into a car in the other lane.
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A 2011 survey by AAA and Kurgo products reveals that dog owners nationwide are often distracted by their four-legged co-pilots. One in five reported taking his or her hands off the steering wheel to prevent a canine companion from climbing into the front seat. This survey of 1,000 dog owners also uncovered other behaviors that increase a driver’s risk of crashing, including:
• petting a dog (52 percent);
• holding a dog while applying the brakes (23 percent);
• reaching into the back seat to play with a dog (18 percent);
• allowing a dog to sit in their lap (17 percent);
• giving a dog food or treats (13 percent); and
• taking a picture of their dog while driving (3 percent).
Nearly all the dog owners surveyed in the AAA study — a whopping 83 percent — acknowledged that unrestrained dogs in moving vehicles are dangerous. However, only 16 percent said they use a pet restraint.
That statistic worries Katherine Miller, director of applied science and research for the ASPCA. “A large percentage of dogs are traveling unrestrained in cars,” she observes. “Unrestrained pets are hugely distracting, particularly if they’re in the front seat. They can hit the dashboard or the windshield in an accident; if the air bag deploys, a dog in the front seat can be crushed.”
And the risks don’t stop there. “An unrestrained dog can become a projectile during an accident,” says Jim Amormino, public information officer for the Orange County, Calif., Sheriff’s Department. “Let’s say you have a dog [unrestrained] in the back seat and you slam on your brakes. The dog is thrown forward into the driver or the windshield. That could cause serious injury to the driver or cause the driver to [lose control and] collide with another car. It’s just dangerous not to buckle up dogs in vehicles.” According to Selter, an unrestrained 60-pound dog is transformed into a 2,700-pound rocket during a 35-mph collision.
Dogs are also at risk in other ways. Captain Linda D’Orsi with the Chula Vista, Calif., Fire Department has seen dogs involved in auto accidents bolt into traffic and be hit by other cars. “A dog handler was in a freeway accident, and she and her dog survived. But the dog was not crated and got out of the car. And he was killed.”
D’Orsi, who is also FEMA-certified as a handler for urban search-andrescue dogs, warns that unrestrained dogs have been known to flee from an accident scene and disappear forever. “A woman got in a traffic accident and was going to be taken away in an ambulance,” she says. “She had [an unrestrained] dog in the car with her, and the dog got out and was running in the road. He was spooked and we could not coax him back.”
Law enforcement officials report that dogs may try to prevent paramedics from treating an injured driver or passengers. “For many dogs, their first duty is to protect their owner,” Amormino says. “If you’re trying to rescue a sick or injured person and the dog is trying to protect [that person], emergency response and treatment can be delayed.”
The key to preventing these problems is to get dogs off drivers’ laps and out of the front seat. Ideally, they should be in the back seat in a safely secured crate or restrained by a seat belt, tether or harness. As Selter notes “We buckle up our kids, we buckle up ourselves and even our groceries. Why are we not buckling up our pets?”
Currently, no federal or state law requires pets to be restrained inside a vehicle, and of the 50 states, only Hawaii prohibits motorists from driving with pets on their laps. At the local government level, Troy, Michigan, passed a “no dogs on drivers’ laps” ordinance that took effect on January 1, 2011.
• Keep dogs in the back seat and make it a habit to restrain them with a pet harness or tether, or in a crate; if using a harness, choose one that’s easy to put on the dog.
• Tether crates to be sure they’re secure, since crates themselves can also become projectiles.
• Make sure the pet restraint you select has been crash-tested in the United States. (Some are tested outside the U.S., so different standards may apply.)
• Pet travel has increased 300 percent since 2005.
• Eighty-four percent of dog owners surveyed in a recent AAA study said they do not restrain their pets in their vehicles, 39 percent said they’d never considered using a restraint and 29 percent said they only take their dogs on short trips.
• In 2009, distracted drivers, including those interacting with their pets, caused accidents that killed 5,474 people and injured 448,000, according to police and government statistics.