When we think about distracted driving, we most often think about talking or texting on a cell phone. Those aren’t the only distractions drivers face, however. Many people don’t think about pet distractions while driving. However, driving with a pet unrestrained in a car can lead to driver distraction.
A 2011 survey of dog owners found that over 50% of people reported that their attention was taken away from the road in the previous year while petting their dog, and nearly 20% admitted to having taken their hands off the wheel to keep a dog from getting in the front seat. In addition, 17% reported that they had held or allowed a dog to sit in their lap, and 3% even admitted to taking a photo of their dog while they were driving.
Considering that there are nearly 90 million dogs in the U.S. (not to mention cats), those numbers show there are potentially a lot of distracted drivers on the roads.
An animal in a car (dog, cat, or other) could also affect a driver’s ability to control the car by interfering with steering or changing gears, getting under the gas or brake pedals, or blocking the driver’s view. Any of these could cause an accident by themselves, but the driver may also be distracted by trying to control the animal.
Besides being a distraction that could lead to a crash, having an unrestrained animal in the car is dangerous, both for the animal and the occupants of the car. In the event of a crash, an animal can be thrown with great force and can be injured or killed, or can injure or kill a driver or passenger. Think about an unrestrained 10-pound animal in a 30 mph crash—the pet becomes a projectile that can be flung about the car with 300 pounds of force. Even if you avoid a crash, sudden braking at high speed can cause an unrestrained animal to be hurled with deadly force.
Despite the dangers of driving with unrestrained animals, only eight states currently have laws regarding restraining an animal in a vehicle. So far only Hawaii specifically bans holding an animal in your lap while driving. Only a handful of states prohibit actions that could be considered distractions while driving, and this could include interacting with an animal. Arizona currently doesn’t have a statewide law on distracted driving.
Several accidents have been reported to have been caused by distractions from animals in a car. These include an accident in North Dakota caused by a dog that leaped into a woman’s lap, causing her to crash into a pond, and an accident caused by distraction from a cat that caused the driver to swerve into a school bus.
To avoid injury (or even death) to you or your pet, the American Veterinary Medical Association recommends that you use a harness or carrier to restrain your pet in a vehicle. The Center for Pet Safety has carried out studies of harnesses, crates, and carriers and has made recommendations about restraining animals in cars.
By restraining your pet in your vehicle you are less likely to become distracted by your pet while driving, which can help keep you, your passengers, and pets safer in the event of an accident.