Is your dog a backseat driver?
When it comes to dogs in cars, you've probably seen it all: canines with their heads hanging out of passenger windows; hyperactive hounds that hop from seat to seat without safety restraints; and pampered pups that smugly sit on their owners' laps, impairing the driver’s ability to steer.
As dangerous as this behavior sounds, a recent survey conducted by the American Automobile Association (AAA) and Kurgo, a pet-travel product manufacturer, found that the situation probably is much worse than you think. No amount of auto insurance can offset the threat posed by unrestrained dogs in cars.
If your experience matches that of the 1,000 dog owners who took part in the AAA/Kurgo survey, your pet is a hazardous backseat driver. When results were tallied, "83 percent of the respondents agreed it could be dangerous to bring an unrestrained pet in their car, but only 16 percent were using pet restraints," says Jennifer Huebner-Davidson, manager of traffic safety advocacy for AAA, a seller of automobile insurance.
In part, the survey found that nearly 60 percent of respondents said they had driven with dogs at least once a month in the past year. And many of them conceded that their furry friends had driven them to distraction.
The most common dog-related distraction identified by the survey was petting animals while driving. Fifty-two percent of the participants admitted to having done so. Those who took the poll also acknowledged:
- Using hands or arms to hold dogs in place while applying the brakes (23 percent).
- Taking a hand off the steering wheel to prevent a dog without a safety restraint from climbing into the front seat (19 percent).
- Reaching into the back seat to interact with their dog (18 percent).
- Allowing their dogs to sit in their laps or holding them while driving (17 percent).
- Feeding dogs treats while driving (13 percent).
- Taking photos of their dogs while driving (3 percent).
Dogs, phones and food
No matter how photogenic Fido may be, without an animal safety restraint he is a missile waiting to be launched in a sudden stop. Many drivers wrongly assume they can hold onto their dogs to protect them from injury. What these misguided pet owners need is a crash course in physics. If the car comes to an abrupt halt, your unrestrained pet will continue moving at the same rate of speed.
American drivers simply are on overload, says Christina Selter, the self-described "pet safety lady" who created Bark Buckle UP, an educational group that advocates for properly restraining animals that ride in cars. Along with tending to their pets, drivers spend too much time chatting on cellphones, texting and eating, she says.
Pets in cars
The American Pet Products Association places the U.S. households with dogs at more than 46 million. Because of changing habits, these mobile mutts increasingly are on the road. Instead of leaving their dogs home, safely locked behind a fence, drivers are taking them on road trips.
John E. Langan, a traffic safety consultant and former police officer who is based in the Philadelphia area, says having unrestrained pets in cars is a serious problem that hasn't received adequate attention.
"Any distraction, even for a second or two, is a matter of life and death when it comes to driving," he says. "You can't react to something you can't see."
Auto insurance for pets
Some insurers offer medical coverage for cats and dogs involved in automobile accidents. Among them are Progressive and Arbella Mutual Insurance Co., a regional insurer based in Quincy, Mass. Chubb recently added up to $2,000 in coverage to its car insurance policies for pets that are injured or killed in crashes, said company spokesperson David Hilgen. The Chubb coverage includes all domestic animals.
Extending car insurance to cover pets comes in recognition of a growing market need, Hilgen explains. "A lot of our customers travel with their pets."
Plans call for eventually offering pet car insurance nationally, but currently Chubb offers it only in Arizona, Maryland, New Jersey and Texas.
Educating the public
According to Bark Buckle UP, lawmakers in several states have proposed mandatory pet tethering when animals ride inside cars. Pet safety devices typically connect to seat belts on rear seats. Although dogs generally are not required to buckle up, police officers have the ability to cite drivers who are distracted by their pets.
Art Adkins, a law enforcement consultant who also serves as a police lieutenant in Gainesville, Fla., says drivers are responsive when safety issues are pointed out to them. They simply don't realize that they and their animals are in danger.