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

Jenni Bergal, Stateline.org on

Published in Cats & Dogs News

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?"

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.

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In 2016, 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."

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