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Driving with Fido: Legal in most states, controversial in all

Jenni Bergal, on

Published in Cats & Dogs News

WASHINGTON -- 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.

In 2017, 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 Four either died or were withdrawn by sponsors; the Pennsylvania measure is pending.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."


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