How to keep your dog safe while you drive

How to keep your dog safe while you drive

When Lindsey Wolko takes her dogs on car rides, she worries about their safety.

Before a drive 10 years ago, Wolko secured her new dog, Maggie, to a harness in the backseat.

“I was on [Interstate] 66 driving near Washington, D.C.,” Wolko recalls. “I had to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident, and she slammed into the backseat. Despite a harness, she was injured.”

Maggie survived, but the incident inspired Wolko to found Reston, Virginia-based, Center for Pet Safety, a nonprofit that tests pet safety products. Wolko says too many people fail to properly protect their dogs from dangers while driving.

Experts recommend restraints

According to a AAA survey, of the 84 percent of respondents who say they have driven with their dogs, only 16 percent admit using any type of restraint system.

Wolko says harnessing prevents dogs from wandering around the car and being a distraction to the driver. Distracted driving leads to about 5,000 deaths per year, according to AAA.

A 2013 study conducted by the Center for Pet Safety showed the majority of restraints on the market do not offer acceptable levels of safety protection for animals and humans in an auto accident. Restraints are available online and at most pet stores.

“We do recommend pet owners use harness products, but we are working to educate them about the differences in product quality,” Wolko says. “While all harnesses can help prevent distraction, not all harnesses can provide crash protection. It is important for pet owners to choose wisely.”

There are harnesses manufacturers advertise as crash-protection products, while others are simply for distraction.

The organization is developing safety standards and hopes to work with manufacturers in the future to guide them in building safe products. The organization’s ultimate goal is to test and certify products in the industry, which has no existing performance standards or test protocols for many classes of pet products.

“Based on what we know, we still recommend crash-protectant harnesses,” Wolko says. “They’re protection from humans if the dog becomes a missile, and it gives dogs the best chance of survival.”

Wolko says she also uses secured crates for dogs, but adds they have not been crash tested. If you use a crate for your dog, experts advise to secure it to the vehicle with a seat belt or strap.

Keeping dogs safe

Have you ever driven by a car and seen a dog lying in the driver’s lap? Most people have.

Ken Baechtold, owner of highly rated Gentle Dog in Overland Park, Kansas, says that’s never a good idea. A dog on your lap, he says, can obstruct the brake or gas pedal if it jumps or falls to the floor. Air bags can also injure or kill a dog.

“If you hit the brakes, they could go flying,” Baechtold says. “When they’re restrained in the vehicle, they can’t run back and forth. And the dog won’t jump if he sees something.”

Another potential danger, Baechtold says, is allowing dogs to stick their heads out the window, no matter how cute it might look.

“Don’t roll down the windows and let them stick their heads out while you’re going 30 or 40 miles per hour,” he says. “Have you ever had a bug hit you in the head while you were on a motorcycle? Some drivers are so proud when their dog sticks its head out the window. But he’s getting bugs and debris in his eyes, ears and nose. That’s not what it’s designed for. It’s not good for the dog.”

Wolko adds that a dog with its head out the window doesn’t stand a good chance to survive an accident.

Dogs can contribute to distracted driving

According to a 2010 AAA survey, 20 percent of people admitted to letting their dogs sit on their laps while they drove, while 31 percent said they were truly distracted when driving with a dog in the car. Fifty-two percent of drivers say they have petted their dogs while driving.

Most states have few, if any, laws in place regarding pet safety in cars.

New Jersey has taken a stronger stance than most by enacting a law that allows officers to pull over drivers they believe are improperly transporting animals. A $250 to $1,000 fine is possible.

In New Jersey, every animal should be contained or restricted from moving freely around the car, and at least harnessed or leashed with a product available on the market. Harnesses typically cost $75 to $125, Wolko says.

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