The Florida Department of Transportation defines “distracted driving” as “any mental or physical activity that takes the driver’s focus off the task of driving.” However, when the typical Floridian speaks of distracted drivers, they are generally referring to those who are texting while driving, talking on handheld devices while driving, or fiddling with the car’s dashboard while driving. But one common distractions that is not commonly discussed is driving with pets. A pet in your vehicle can pose some serious risks.
Some people allow dogs to sit in their lap while they are driving. They are lulled into a sense of safety and security because, most times, the dog is not actively moving about or disturbing their operation of the vehicle. Of course, the one time it happens could result in a fatal collision. Even if the dog rides in the backseat, a sudden bark or yelp could startle the driver, or constant barking could annoy a driver and lead to the driver paying more attention to the dog than to traffic. A loose pet can do the same, especially if the driver attempts to calm the dog or re-position the dog with one of his or her hands. Also a loose pet moving about the backseat could block the driver from seeing out the rear window.
AAA conducted a survey a few years ago to find out how much pets distract drivers. It turns out that pet owners rather frequently drove with their pets. 56% of pet dog owners had driven with their dog at least once a month throughout the previous year. 52% petted their dog at least once while driving in the past year. 23% had restrained their dog with a hand or arm while braking the car. 19% had taken at least one hand off the steering wheel to prevent a dog from climbing into the front seat. Other distracting behaviors included reaching into the backseat to interact with a dog (18%), taking pictures of their dogs while driving, giving the dog food or treats while driving, and allowing the dog to sit in their lap while driving. 83% of the drivers acknowledged that driving with an unrestrained dog could be dangerous but 84% did not use a restraint system on their dogs.
It is difficult to find specific statistics on how many collisions were partially caused by pets in the car. Most reports include pets into broad categories like “moving object in vehicle,” (“Distracted Driver Report,” Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, 2004) which includes swatting at flying insects among other things. Florida’s Safety Office allows for narrow categories when it comes to distractions by electronic device (cell phone talk, texting, etc.) but it lumps pets with many other types of distractions under the category of “other distraction inside the vehicle.”
In most states, including Florida, there is no law against driving with an unrestrained pet dog in the vehicle cabin with you, nor is there a law in Florida against transporting unrestrained pets in truck flatbeds. Florida’s laws against distracted driving do not mention pets at all. And Florida’s general laws about transporting animals do not apply to non-commercial driving. There are several bills before the Florida legislature that are drafted to address concerns about the safety of pets in vehicles and the safety of their drivers. House Bill 281 concerns pets riding on a driver’s lap or in a truck flatbed unrestrained. Senate Bills 200 and 308 and House Bills 131 and 329 are concerned with the removal of animals from unattended vehicles. House Bill 281, however, has been withdrawn from consideration.
As stated above, the majority of drivers do not use pet restraints. This is dangerous. Whether or not your pet is excitable, when you suddenly brake or swerve to avoid a collision, that dog can fly into a windshield or into a driver. Dogs without restraints can not brace themselves during extreme driving.
An unrestrained 10-pound dog will hit a driver with 300 pounds of pressure in a 30 mile-per-hour collision and an unrestrained 80-pound dog in a crash at only 30 mph will exert approximately 2,400 pounds of pressure, according to Jennifer Huebner-Davidson, AAA National, Traffic Safety Programs manager. That is enough to crush your skull, which only takes between 500 and 600 pounds of pressure.
There are all kinds of products available if you would like to drive with your pet safely, including mesh barriers, plastic barriers, tethers with at least two anchors, and so on.