Last Sunday afternoon, I decided to take our one-year-old Cavapoo dog, Gingi, to my son's baseball game. She stood excitedly on the back seat, enjoying the feeling of the wind in her "hair," and seemed to relish her newfound freedom of being out and leash-free. I was so excited, in fact, that I almost turned left on a red light, and the driver who I almost ran into gave me a dirty look and a long, loud honk.
I slammed on the breaks and my son's vanilla wafers went flying through the car, and Gingi almost did, too. Luckily, no one was hurt; but I was surprised I had gotten so distracted driving in the first block alone.
Apparently, I'm not the only one. Fifty-nine percent of dog owners admitted to participating in at least one distracting behavior while driving with their dog, including petting, feeding and letting the dog sit in their lap. And 80% of dog owners say they drive with their dogs, but only 17% say the dog is restrained in some way, according to a new survey by AAA and Kurgo pet travel products.
Dog owner, dog lover, or not, the issue of distracted driving takes a back seat to nothing these days. And since dogs are often considered part of the family and travel in their owner's car go to on trips, errands and outings, safety for everyone should be a top priority. Distracted driving fatalities are up 6% since 2005, and some people are looking to ban not only texting and cell phone chatting while driving, but unrestrained dogs, too.
Increasingly, states are enacting even more road rules, all in an attempt to keep drivers focused. In Maryland, where I live, we are just a month into a new law banning drivers from talking on a handheld cell phone - and the state already prohibits drivers from texting while driving. Between trying to get my car's Bluetooth to work and remembering extra booster seats for my kindergartener's friends, I don't know if I would have the energy to strap my dogs into special seat belts a new doggie driving law could require.
But driving with dogs poses serious safety hazards. Dr. Sandy Laden, a veterinarian with Kenwood Animal Hospital in Bethesda, Md., has seen the repercussions for twenty years.
"Dogs come in with eye injuries because they hang their heads out car windows," Laden says. "Some have jumped out of car and gotten hit by another; some get caught under seats and we have to sedate them to get them out. Drivers need to understand unrestrained dogs can go flying if the driver has to stop short."
She recommends dogs remain in the back seat, crated or in doggy seat belts, and never, ever on the driver's lap. She thinks people aren't restraining their dogs because they just don't recognize the danger.
Michelle Douglas, certified pet dog trainer, certified dog behavior consultant, owner of www.refinedcanine.com and president of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, couldn't agree more. She thinks owners need education, not legislation. She believes dog owners get distracted regardless of where their dog sits, and that dogs of any age can be trained to sit still. Even so, she says the best place for dogs is in the back seat in a crate.
"A seat belt of canine restraint harness is okay, too," Douglas says. "When we get a dog, we buy food, bedding and toys. A crate or seat belt should also be on this list of essentials."
The American Kennel Club also recommends keeping dogs in cars restrained in a crate or harness attached to a seat belt. AKC Spokesperson Lisa Peterson says: "Nothing is worse for a driver than a loose dog in a vehicle. The dog can get between the driver and the steering wheel, brake or gas pedal - not to mention blocking the view of the road or rearview mirror."
Interestingly, in interviews with a handful of dog owners who drive with their dogs, almost every one reported driving with their unrestrained dog and interacting with him, but insisted the dogs did not distract them. However, when their dogs sat in the front passenger seat, they described petting their dogs, playing with their ears, or talking to their furry friends.
Until public education kicks in, some people are starting a movement to require dogs be restrained in vehicles. Today, only eight states have laws about dogs in open truck beds; none have specific laws requiring drivers to restrain their dogs inside moving cars.
Some states including California, have tried, but failed, to add dogs to their seat belt laws. And some cities, including Tulsa, Oklahoma, tried to enact local ordinances banning pets from riding on drivers' laps.
One in five dog owners say that they let their dogs sit on their lap while driving, according to a study by the American Automobile Association (AAA). Several years ago, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have outlawed driving with your dog in your lap. For now, California's distracted driver tips are just for the taking.