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Your Wheels

Pet Safety Tips so That the Passenger Fur Doesn't Fly

Although California doesn't require your kitty or pooch to buckle up, the family ride might not be the place to let them loose.

November 19, 1998|JEANNE WRIGHT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you're the type who relishes driving down the open road with your golden retriever--or Siamese cat--riding next to you in the passenger seat, consider your pet's safety next time.

Many of us regard our four-legged creatures as part of the family, so it's common to see furry faces peering out from front-seat car windows.

There are no laws in California preventing your pooch or kitty from riding unrestrained in the front or back seat. But is it a safe way to travel with your pets?

Absolutely not, says Leslie Sinclair of the Humane Society of the United States in Washington. Not only can a loose animal in the car distract the driver, "but if there's a crash, your pet will go flying," said Sinclair, a veterinarian, who is director for companion animal veterinary issues at the society.

Although there are no known studies on the issue, Sinclair cautions that even air bags could potentially injure pets, posing the same dangers they do to children and small adults, she said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has not conducted any tests or studies of the benefits or risks posed by air bags to dogs or other pets, said agency spokesman Tim Hurd.

"There would have to be a decision made to spend funds for crash protection for dogs," he said, "and that's not part of our mission."

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In general, auto makers and federal regulatory officials sidestep the issue of pets in cars, seeking not to give any advice that may later be used against them.

"Our charter does not extend beyond the human race," said one official who asked to remain anonymous.

But if studies of adults and children are any guide, an unrestrained dog could face serious injury in a number of accident scenarios in a car equipped with air bags.

Federal safety officials and the auto industry have warned car owners that small-stature adults and children should be kept belted and at least 10 inches from the deployment ports of air bags. The same physical forces that affect humans would also affect a dog, so presumably the same sorts of cautions would apply.

If a motorist initiated a panic stop just before a crash, for example, a dog sitting in the front passenger seat would likely fly or slide forward toward the air-bag door. In the ensuing crash, if the dog were positioned near the air bag, it could sustain serious injury or death, just as dozens of young children have in accidents.

Conversely, if a car entered a crash without a panic stop, the dog might be better protected by a deploying air bag that would prevent it from hitting the dashboard or going through the windshield.

But given the lack of testing on pets, it is also possible that a dog could slide off the bag, going through the center of the windshield or out the side window.

There are a number of doggie car seats or harnesses on the market to restrain your pet in the car, Sinclair notes. However, because there are no data to show whether these restraints could do more good than harm, the Humane Society is not officially recommending their use.

"We recommend that people drive with their pets restrained in a carrier in the back seat of the car," Sinclair says. It's the safest place for them, and it prevents the animal from distracting the driver.

If you do use a doggie seat or harness, make sure your pet can't get free while you are driving, says Kenneth Adams of the Western Insurance Information Institute.

"You don't want them to be able to escape, get ensnared in the straps . . . and try to jump out a window," he said.

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California and a handful of other states have enacted laws that prohibit dogs from riding in the bed of pickup trucks without restraints. The concern is that a dog may get tossed around or even out of the truck, causing injury to the animal and posing a traffic hazard, the Humane Society says.

Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety in Sacramento, says that although she is safety conscious, she did allow her two dogs to roam free in her car as she drove. One time, she acknowledges, one of them spotted a horse and jumped out the window but was unharmed.

"I tried the harnesses on the dogs," she said, "but they looked miserable. Dogs love to ride in the car with their head out the window. They're only on this planet once, and I wanted them to enjoy it."

Nevertheless, she said, "common sense says to keep kids and pets in the back of the car." Her advice is to start dogs off very young and get them used to riding in the car, either in a carrier or with a harness.

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For their part, auto makers decline to offer motorists advice on air bags and pets.

"We don't have a formal position on it," said Terry Rhadigan, a spokesman for General Motors Corp. "We haven't put any advice in our owner's manuals, nor have we done any testing."

Under growing consumer pressure, the traffic safety administration earlier this year began allowing motorists to obtain permission to install deactivation switches for the air bags in their cars. The approval, which is considered on a case-by-case basis, is granted only for special situations, such as a large family without enough rear seats to accommodate all the children in the family.

"There is no provision in the regulations to deactivate the bag for a pet," spokesman Hurd said. "The dealer would say, 'I am sorry, but federal law prohibits me from rendering safety equipment inoperative.' "

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Jeanne Wright cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles CA 90053. E-mail: highway1@latimes.com.

* PET SMART

So what is a safety-conscious dog or cat owner to do? Auto Mart surveys several products for drivers and their pets on the go. Classified, G11

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