O'BRIEN: Distracted driving goes to the dogs

Posted: Jan. 7, 2013 12:03 pm Updated: Feb. 18, 2013 12:15 pm

Neal Meyer is like a lot of other dog owners. When he heads out to run an errand, he has no problem letting his dogs go along for the ride.

"I take my dogs with me all the time," said Meyer, a traffic safety officer for the Quincy Police Department. "They sit on my middle seat."

There are no state or local laws against restraining pets while you drive. Considering the push to eliminate all kinds of distracted driving, it's kind of surprising that there are no laws dealing with pets in vehicles.

Travel around town long enough and you're bound to find someone cruising down the street with a dog in his or her lap. Heck, while stopped at a four-way stop recently, it looked as if the dog was actually driving a car at the intersection, because the dog was blocking the driver's face from my view. We restrain ourselves and our children in our vehicles. Why wouldn't we want to keep our dogs restrained, too?

According to a survey done by AAA, 56 percent of those who responded had driven with their dog at least once a month in the past year. More than half of those people (52 percent) admitted to petting their dog as they traveled. About a quarter (23 percent) said they used their hands or arms to hold the dog in place while they applied the breaks, while 19 percent said they had to take at least one hand off the wheel to keep their dog from climbing into the front seat.

The survey found that 17 percent let the dog sit on their lap, while 3 percent admitted to -- get this -- taking a photo of their dog while driving.

Shouldn't we think twice about letting pooches run wild in our cars as we drive down the streets, two-lane roads and highways?

"Pet restraint is a somewhat emerging issue," AAA spokeswoman Heather Hunter told USA Today. "While some states do have legislation in place, there is much more to be done regarding tracking of these laws, filling gaps in states that do not yet have laws and education on the importance of restraining pets in moving vehicles, to protect the pet and all family members."

Illinois is actually in the majority when it comes to not regulating pets in vehicles. Hawaii is the only state that explicitly forbids pets from being in a driver's lap. Arizona, Connecticut and Maine drivers could be subject to distracted-driving laws if they're found to cause an accident with pets on their laps. New Jersey makes its drivers restrain pets in vehicles. Fines range from $250 to $1,000 if New Jersey drivers are found to be in noncompliance with the law.

Meyer said that having a dog between driver and the front windshield could net the driver a ticket for obstructed vision. He has never written a ticket for a situation like that and hasn't heard of that ever happening in Quincy. He's also never seen an accident where a loose pet played a role in what happened.

"I would discourage any action that is related to distracted driving," Meyer said. "Having a pet in your lap could be a distraction."

This is the time of year when we all make resolutions. If you want to take Fido along for the ride, make sure it doesn't look like he's the one who is driving the car.




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