We're Driven to Distraction When Fido is Co-Pilot, Study Finds

First it was talking on the phone while driving. Then it was texting while driving. Now, it seems, you can't even drive safely when Fido's bouncing along in the backseat.

According to an AAA study, if your pet is riding in the car while you're behind the wheel, chances are you are just as distracted as you would be if you were texting. Looking away from the road for only 2 seconds doubles your risk of being in a crash, the study found, and driving with a pet in the car is the third worst driving distraction, behind talking on the phone and texting.

The study found that 80 percent of drivers admit to bringing their pets along for car rides, but less than a quarter keep them restrained. And two-thirds of the dog owners who were surveyed routinely drive while petting or playing with their pooches, sometimes even giving them food or water. The study found that more than half of owners pet their dogs while driving, and one in five allowed their dogs to sit in their lap.

And while that may be a prescription for a car crash, there are very few states that have any laws to regulate driving with a pet in the car. And most of those that do deal only with dogs and carry such lightweight fines that they are hardly a deterrent.

And the AAA study found that if a 10-pound dog is loose in a car and it crashes at 50 miles per hour, the pet could exert 500 pounds of pressure – endangering both the pet and anyone in its path.

At least eight states -- Connecticut, New Hampshire, Oregon, Rhode Island, California, Massachusetts, Nevada and Washington -- require drivers to secure their animals when they are in an open area of a vehicle, such as the back of a pickup truck. But none of them require restraining or securing the animals when they are in an enclosed part of the vehicle, and most of those laws apply only to dogs.

Connecticut's "Laws on Securing Animals Being Transported in a Vehicle” say they are meant to “prevent [the animal] from being thrown, falling, or jumping from the truck.” But the deterrent is hardly a stiff one: The maximum fine is $50.

In New Hampshire, the first violation is a misdemeanor, and a subsequent violation is a class B felony, meaning the dog can be confiscated and the owner may have to cough up $2,000 for its care. A violation in Oregon is a class D traffic violation punishable by a fine of $90. In Rhode Island a violation will run you a fine of up to $50 for the first offense and up to $200 for each subsequent offense.

In Nevada it is a misdemeanor to transport an animal in a vehicle in a cruel or inhumane manner, punishable by imprisonment in county jail for up to six months, a fine of up to $1,000, or both.

Further, the animal may be impounded, and the owner must pay for its care while in custody.
In Washington, it is illegal to jeopardize the safety of the animal or the public, punishable by a fine of up to $150, imprisonment in the county jail for up to 60 days, or both, and the driver must pay the costs of the prosecution.

Prior to the release of the AAA study, other incidents involving drivers being distracted by their pets increased public awareness of the problem, and legislation is starting to address it.

Trussville, Ala., could vote this month on an ordinance that would prohibit not only texting while driving, but also interacting with pets while driving, driving while reading, eating and personal grooming.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill in 2008 that some critics called the “Paris Hilton Bill.” It would have fined drivers $35 for sharing the driver’s seat with an animal co-pilot. Assemblyman Bill Maze, a Republican, proposed the bill after seeing a woman driving with three dogs on her lap. "If you've got a live animal, which you're not able to control, and that thing gets between you and the steering wheel or underneath your brake pedal, you've got a problem," Maze told the U.K.’s Telegraph at the time.

In an extreme case of driving with animals, the South Dakota Supreme Court ruled, in August 2009, that an officer was right to impound 15 cats found in a woman's car, but it did not place a limit on how many cats you can have.

The owner, Patricia Edwards, said she drove with the cats from Texas to South Dakota and had plans to continue driving with a carload of felines.

The court expressed "concern with the visibility and safety issues" with transporting her cats, pointing out that the view out the back window was "obstructed by numerous cats climbing on the seat backs and rear dashboard."

Thomas Conroy, retired police chief and nationally recognized K-9 police trainer, pointed out that having your pet unrestrained in the car is "worse than texting, because the driver has control over the keyboard, but does not have control over a loose animal." He explained that police protocol for transporting K-9 dogs is to keep the animal restrained. "Police primarily use a metal and fiberglass crate."

Many pet supply stores sell crates and barriers that can help prevent a dangerous situation when driving with an animal in the car.

DMVanswers.com lists the following precautions when DWA (Driving With Animals):

-- Never allow your cat to roam freely. They like to sit on your lap or repose on the dashboard -- making them as distracting as cell phones. Always transport felines in a travel crate designed specifically for cats.

-- Use a pet-designed harness or seat belt to tether your dog. If not, a sudden stop could send it hurtling forward, placing itself and other passengers in danger. Plus, a harness will prevent your dog from distracting driving-attention with licks to the ear, or, depending on size, curling around your feet near the brake and gas pedals.

-- Never leave your pet in a parked car during the summer.

-- Don't let your dog hang its head out a side window. Although amusing, it becomes a driver distraction, and depending on which window, a hindrance to seeing the traffic around you. Plus, it's not safe for the dog.

-- Never attach a restraining device to your pet's collar while inside a vehicle.