Distracted Dogging: Legal in Most States, Controversial in All

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Driving with an animal in your lap may be fun, but it’s extremely dangerous for the driver, passengers, other motorists and the pet, traffic safety experts say.

This article was originally published at Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts, and was written by Jenni Bergal.

Those happy dogs sitting in a driver’s lap or hanging their heads out the car window may look like the model of canine companionship. But they’re also potential projectiles, poised to rocket through the air if there’s a crash.

“A 10-pound dog can turn into 300 pounds of force at 30 miles an hour,” said Richard Romer, AAA’s state relations manager. “Going on a trip with Fido can really turn fatal if it’s not restrained.”

But while traffic safety experts say a dog moving freely in a car can be dangerous for the driver, passengers, other motorists and the pet, it’s perfectly legal in most states.

Hawaii is the only state that specifically prohibits drivers from holding an animal in their lap or allowing one in their immediate area if it interferes with their ability to control the car, according to AAA. In at least three states — Nevada, New Jersey and Washington — animal cruelty laws that make it illegal to improperly transport an animal could apply to driving with an unrestrained pet, but Romer said they are likely to be enforced only in egregious situations.

Washington and at least seven other states and the District of Columbia have comprehensive distracted driving laws that generally prohibit careless driving or tasks not associated with operating the vehicle, and interacting with a pet might be considered a distraction, Romer said. D.C.’s law is the only one that specifically mentions pet interactions in its definition of distracted driving.

But passing laws specifically to forbid furry friends from sitting in drivers’ laps is another matter. In the past five years, nearly a dozen states have considered such bills, but none has become law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In California, the Legislature passed a measure in 2008. It was vetoed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, who said the bill wasn’t a priority.

This year, at least five states — Indiana, Maine, North Carolina, Oregon and Pennsylvania — considered such bills. Four either died or were withdrawn by sponsors; the Pennsylvania measure is pending. In November, a Michigan state legislator filed a similar bill for the 2018 session.

State legislators who have sponsored bills to ban animals in laps or require them to be restrained in cars often have been met with howls from pet owners.

“The public outcry was unreal,” said North Carolina state Rep. Garland Pierce, a Democrat who filed a bill in February that would have imposed a $100 fine for driving with an animal in your lap. Facing a deluge of complaints from angry dog owners, he withdrew the bill just a week later.

“I got ridiculed. I got beat up bad,” said Pierce, who previously sponsored a successful bill to ban texting while driving. “I saw this as a highway safety issue. I had no idea that I was opening a can of worms.”

Pennsylvania Democratic state Rep. Angel Cruz, who is sponsoring a bill to ban pets in drivers’ laps, said he has tried to get the measure passed in previous sessions but it hasn’t gotten anywhere — and still isn’t.

“You can’t drive with a child on your lap. You have to put it in a car seat. And you can’t be distracted with a cellphone,” he said. “So how can you drive with a pet in your lap?”

Untethered Pets

While some pet owners use harnesses, crates or carriers to transport pets in their cars, many prefer driving with their animals untethered.

A 2011 survey of dog owners by AAA and Kurgo, a pet travel product manufacturer, found that most agreed that having an unrestrained dog in the car could be dangerous, but only 16 percent said they used some form of restraint.

The survey also revealed how distracting it can be for drivers to have an unrestrained canine in the car. Fifty-two percent admitted petting their dog while driving, 19 percent said they have used their hands or arms to keep it from climbing into the front seat, and 17 percent have held it or allowed it to sit in their lap.

The results can be serious — even tragic.

Last year, a 76-year-old North Dakota woman drove her car into a pond when her Shih Tzu jumped into her lap and blocked her view. In November, a 19-year-old Maine driver with a cat in her lap got distracted, swerved into the oncoming lane and ran into a school bus, injuring herself, some students and the bus driver — and killing her cat. And in 2012, police say, a 47-year-old Washington state driver who was killed after crashing into an SUV may have been distracted by the Chihuahua sitting in her lap.

The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends restraining animals in a vehicle with a secure harness or carrier. It says a pet sitting in a driver’s lap could be injured or killed by an airbag and an untethered pet could be thrown out of a window or through the windshield.

Lindsey Wolko, founder of the Center for Pet Safety, a nonprofit consumer watchdog group that tests the safety of pet products, said pets should be in back seats and restrained, but those restraints need to be crash-tested and certified to be safe. Her center has tested harnesses, crates and carriers and found that many are not safe, she said.

But educating pet owners about the risks of driving with an unrestrained animal is much more effective than trying to enact laws, she said. “Pet owners often don’t want that type of regulation. It’s a very emotional thing. They think it’s overkill, that it’s not necessary.”

Legislative Resistance

Some state legislators see distracted dogging measures as overreach or question whether they really are necessary.

Connecticut Republican state Rep. Fred Camillo, a dog lover who frequently drives around with his unrestrained German shepherd in his SUV, said he was skeptical about a 2015 bill that would have barred drivers from having pets in their laps and made it a distracted driving offense.

“I’m all for tougher distracted driving laws, but they didn’t come up with any statistics showing this was a problem,” Camillo said. “Are we going to pass laws without any hard evidence? If the stats are out there, I’m willing to be open-minded. But I haven’t seen anything.”

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration doesn’t keep data on how many crashes or fatalities are linked to unsecured pets, and traffic safety experts say it’s unlikely states do either. Nor is there much information available about how often police ticket drivers for being distracted by their pets.

Even in Hawaii, which has had its law for decades and imposes a $97 fine for driving with a “person, animal, or object” in your lap, officials don’t track how many of those citations by police specifically involved animals. Last year, Honolulu police issued 38 such citations; this year they issued 13, according to the Hawaii Department of Transportation.

Brooks Baehr, spokesman for the Honolulu Department of the Prosecuting Attorney, said that in the past four years, two people have been prosecuted for driving with a pooch in their lap or close by. One was a man with a little dog in the passenger seat of his Mercedes. The other was a woman in a Cadillac Escalade whom police spotted with a small, long-haired dog in her lap. One of her hands was on the wheel. In the other she had a cellphone, and she was looking down at it.

FEATURED CASE STUDIES
Powered By The Atlas
Green Infrastructure acts as a bridge for Indigenous reconciliation in Vancouver, BC
W 63rd Ave & Yukon St, Vancouver, BC V5X 2J2, Canada
Improved Water Quality and More Field Time Due to a 97% Reduction in Office Admin Work
Marin County, CA, USA
Using Large-scale Green Solutions to Reduce Overflows and Reinvigorate a Neighborhood
Cincinnati, OH, USA

NEXT STORY: The Criminalization of Gentrifying Neighborhoods

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.