Is driving going to the dogs?

Survey's sponsors recommend seat belts for pets

July 24, 2011

There are few more joyful sights in the world than a big old dog sticking its head out a car window with a goofy grin, its tongue hanging out and its ears flapping in the breeze. Up until about 15 years ago, that was me in the driver's seat and a golden retriever named Gusty riding behind.

A survey released last week brought that image to mind. It showed that dog owners, a group to which I once belonged, by and large do as I once did: They let the animal ride without restraint. After all, who would put a seat belt on a dog?

Well, if you listen to the sponsors of the poll, all dog owners should. The survey was financed by AAA and by Kurgo, a company that has a financial interest in selling dog safety products. That's reason to be wary of a study but not to ignore it entirely.

The survey shows that during the past year, 56 percent of dog owners have driven with their pets at least once a month. But only 16 percent used a pet restraint device — a safety measure advocated by AAA.

"Drivers should use a pet restraint system every time their dog is in the vehicle," said AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Christine Delise. "A restraint will not only limit distractions but also protect the driver, the pet and other passengers in the event of a crash or sudden stop."

Petting the pooch is the most common form of dog distraction, with 52 percent of dog owners reporting having done that while driving. Almost one in four — 23 percent — say they've used their hands or arms to protect their pets while braking. Nineteen percent have used hands or arms to prevent dogs from invading the front seat, the poll found.

Less common, but perhaps more dangerous, activities include reaching into the back seat to interact with a dog (18 percent), holding or allowing a dog to sit in the driver's lap (17 percent) and feeding a dog (13 percent).

According to the survey, dog owners indulge in these practices even though they know them to be unsafe. According to the poll, 83 percent of dog owners are aware that an unrestrained dog in a moving car presents a danger.

Forty-two percent of dog owners surveyed say they do not use a restraint device because they believe their dog is calm. But AAA points out that a dog, whether calm or frenetic, can be thrown in a crash or sudden stop — posing a hazard to both human and canine occupants of the vehicle.

"An unrestrained 10-pound dog in a crash at only 30 mph will exert roughly 300 pounds of pressure, while an unrestrained 80-pound dog in a crash at only 30 mph will exert approximately 2,400 pounds of pressure. Imagine the devastation that can cause to your pet and anyone in its path," Delise said.

AAA said other reasons given for not using a restraint include never having considered it (39 percent), taking the dog only on short trips (29 percent) and wanting to let the dog hang its head out the car window.

So what to make of this information? Some readers of my blog wanted to discount it entirely because of the participation of a manufacturer of the dog restraint devices that AAA recommends people use.

According to Delise, Kurgo — whose founders may well have the purest of motives — paid half the cost of the survey. But the spokeswoman said the poll was monitored by AAA's professional staff, which has a lot of experience doing credible surveys.

(One question for which AAA did not have an answer is how frequently dog distractions cause accidents. There's considerable research to support the premise that distracted driving is a contributing factor in one-fifth to one-third of all crashes, but AAA couldn't sniff out any dog-specific studies.)

But experience and common sense suggest the survey comes close to some uncomfortable truths. Who among us hasn't witnessed some animal lover cruising along with a fluffy little dog bouncing around in his or her lap? How many of us have never had a dog act up while we were driving?

Maybe we got away with it, but it wasn't safe then and it won't be safe the next time.

Let's leave aside the role of government in regulating this behavior. Let's just assume for now that the Maryland General Assembly is too timid to take on the state's dog lobby by requiring that pets in cars be restrained or put in a crate. (Though you might get a few votes against that dog-on-lap nonsense.)

For many drivers, any effort by the government to protect them from flying dogs would be an intrusion of the "nanny state." That's a valid point. Life isn't meant to be risk-free.

But dog-owning drivers might want to ask themselves: Is it fair to the dogs to let them ride unprotected? In a crash, they're the ones likely to be thrown into a windshield or, if on a driver's lap, flattened by an air bag.

Children in the car? That's a stark choice. An 80-pound retriever sent hurtling around the inside of a vehicle could cause serious injury. A child can't give informed consent to that risk. That wasn't something I thought about in my days of hauling a dog and a child around. But should I acquire another dog and a grandchild somewhere down the line, I wouldn't have that excuse again. Now that you've read this far, neither do you.

Other people on the road? They're always an abstraction until there's an actual crash. But no matter how great the driver and well-behaved the dog, it's hard to predict animal behavior. How would you feel if somebody was hurt because your dog gave you an unexpected nudge?

It's better to be a dog than a driver. A dog doesn't have to think about these things.


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