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Buckle up Fido: One lawmaker's idea to curb distracted drivers

August 21, 2012|By Richard Simon
  • With wind in its face and sharing the driver's side of the car, a small dog cruises along Orchard Street in Walla Walla, Wash.
With wind in its face and sharing the driver's side of the car, a small… (Walla Walla Union-Bulletin,…)

Fido can fetch, heel and stay. And if a New Jersey lawmaker has her way, it will be dog owners who have to obey a new law requiring them to buckle up their pets on car trips.

And no, the proposal was not inspired by the often-repeated story of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s strapping the family dog’s crate to the roof of the car during a 1983 vacation.

Rather, the legislation stems from concern that loose pets, such as dogs riding on motorists’ laps, can be "more of a distraction than a cellphone, especially if the animal is hopping from seat to seat, trying to sit on your lap, or worse, jump down by your feet,’’ says its sponsor, Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer, a Democrat – and dog owner. 

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"I have a small dog and I know how distracting they can be when driving,’’ she said in a statement.

The issue of unrestrained pets in cars has made headlines before. Remember, the story of the driver in South Dakota who was pulled over for having 15 cats loose in her car after nearly backing into a police car? And years ago, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents expressed concern about one of Queen Elizabeth II’s corgis lying on the rear shelf of her limo, saying that if the car braked suddenly, the dog could have been hurled forward and injured Her Majesty.

As written, Spencer’s bill would require drivers to use a device, "including an animal safety harness, modified seat belt, tether, or other similar type of control apparatus, which humanely restricts the movement of a domestic dog or cat and keeps the animal secured and confined to a seat in a passenger automobile or within a passenger automobile’s cargo area during motor vehicle transport.”

Violators would be fined $20 and could possibly be charged with animal cruelty.

The proposed law has drawn growls from a Republican lawmaker.

"Let’s just harness some common sense rather than a new regulation that would function mainly to harass well-intentioned citizens and their harmless pets,’’ Assemblyman Jay Webber, a Republican. He’s introduced a rival bill that would declare that failure to restrain a pet in the car would not constitute animal cruelty.

"New Jersey can reduce distracted driving and improve road safety without distorting animal laws or threatening pet owners with the extremes of imprisonment and stiff fines if they don’t have Benji seat-belted," he said in a statement to The Times.   

Debora Bresch, ASPCA’s senior director of government relations for the mid-Atlantic region, said that the animal welfare organization supports the intent of New Jersey legislators to protect humans and pets.

"The ASPCA recognizes the potential for unrestrained pets in a moving vehicle to serve as a distraction for drivers and to be seriously injured or escape in the unfortunate event of an accident, as well as to add an aggravating factor to accidents that could result in additional injury to people,’’ she said.

In a survey conducted last year by AAA and Kurgo, a manufacturer of pet travel products, 29% of respondents admitted to being distracted by their dog while driving and 17% said they allowed their dog to sit on their lap or held their dog while driving. Sixteen percent who have driven with their pet use some form of restraint while their dog is in the vehicle, according to the survey. 

 In California, according to the Highway Patrol, animals were cited as a contributing factor in 58 distracted driver crashes that caused injuries and 94 that caused property damage in 2010. But that number was lower than the distracted driver crashes related to eating in the car and operating the radio or CD player.

Then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2008 vetoed a bill that would have prohibited dogs from riding on the laps of motorists.  Similar proposals in Rhode Island and Tennessee have been stuck in committees.  Arizona, Connecticut and Maine do not explicitly bar drivers from allowing dogs or other animals to sit on their laps, but they do prohibit people from engaging in any activity in a motor vehicle that interferes with its safe operation on a highway, Bresch said.  Hawaii is the only state that specifically prohibits a driver from operating a vehicle with a pet on his or her lap, she added.

As for dogs that like to hang out the window on rides, the ASPCA advises:  "Don't allow your pet to ride with his or her head outside the window. This can subject the animal to inner ear damage and lung infections, and your pet could be injured by flying objects.’’

Richard.simon@latimes.com

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richard.simon@latimes.com

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