It's not an everyday occurrence, but when a driver or pedestrian sees someone driving with a pet in their lap or elsewhere in the vehicle the usual reaction is to smile and to think what a cute picture the scene would make. A more appropriate reaction would be to worry about the safety of the driver, the animal and others on the road.
Pets -- most often dogs but sometimes a cat or other creature -- might be an integral part of life for many people, but their presence in a vehicle, particularly if the animal is not restrained, is by any measure a distraction to the driver. Indeed, a pet in the car, some public safety officials say, can be as disruptive as using a cellphone or texting while driving. Responsible pet owners know that. Given the growing number of critters that apparently have the freedom to roam in moving vehicles, a lot of people do not.
A dog in a driver's lap or with its paws on the steering wheel is an obvious distraction. So is a cat on the dashboard. A pet that moves around in a vehicle can shift a driver's attention from the road. Moreover, an unrestrained animal can become a danger to other occupants of a vehicle or itself in many instances.
A small, unrestrained dog sitting or standing in the back seat can be propelled forward at a high rate of speed if a vehicle is struck from behind. The animal can hit the back of a seat or a windshield or a passenger. The result is harm to the animal, or in a growing number of cases, injury, sometimes serious, to other occupants of the car or truck. There is a way to minimize the likelihood of harm.
If an animal must travel in a vehicle, say to an appointment at the vet,, using a restraint and tether system -- an animal seat belt, if you will -- significantly reduces the possibility of distraction or harm.
Skeptics might say that those concerned about unrestrained animals in vehicles have too much time to think, that their time could be better used on other topics. Not so. Evidence strongly suggests otherwise.
A recent survey indicated that 65 percent of dog owners admitted to engaging in at least one potentially distracting activity while driving with their pet. In that group, 52 percent said that activity included petting their pet, even when the animal was in the back seat.
Given such admissions, it's hardly a surprise that some states are taking action to reduce distractions caused by unrestrained pets in vehicles. New Jersey, for example recently approved fines of $250-$1,000 for drivers who allow pets to move freely about a vehicle while it is moving. Arizona, Connecticut, Maine and Hawaii have similar regulations. Rhode Island and Oregon are studying comparable rules.
Whether states should become involved in regulating how animals travel in vehicles might be arguable. What is not debatable is the need to make roads as safe as possible. Properly restraining animals in vehicles is one way to do so.