Attention dog parents. You're probably guilty (or know someone who is) of this scenario: You're driving down the road with your pooch in tow, and suddenly he crawls into your lap. You keep on going, though, not the least bit worried that allowing Fido in your lap while you're behind the wheel could actually be a crime. (That term guilty has a whole new meaning now, doesn't it?)
But it's true. States across the country are writing laws to prevent drivers from allowing pups in their laps while they're on the road. In late November 2017, for instance, a bill was introduced to the Michigan legislature that would do just that.
New Law Proposed
Though the current Michigan law already allows a police officer to penalize drivers distracted by pets, the new legislation goes further: making it a civil infraction to drive with a dog in your lap. The fine proposed is $100. The current Michigan law as it stands doesn't make it a crime to drive with a pet on the lap, but if that driver is weaving, speeding or otherwise driving irresponsibly, they could be pulled over and cited.
Michigan State Rep. LaTanya Garrett, who introduced the state's new bill, told the Detroit Free Press it's simply a matter of safety. Garrett, who is a dog owner and former first responder, said she knows how easily a dog gets excited, particularly if he hears sirens. Garrett said she thinks driving with an unrestrained pet is just as distracting — and therefore as dangerous — as driving while texting or applying makeup.
While there are no real statistics to show how many automobile accidents could have been caused by distracted driving due to a dog, AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety notes the three main sources of distractions are eyes off the road, hands off the wheel and mind off the task. If a dog jumps in a driver's lap, the chances that driver will do all three are high.
Laws on the Books
A 2011 AAA/Kurgo survey all but verified that: Nearly six in 10 (56 percent) respondents said they had driven with their dog at least once a month in the past year, and more than 50 percent said the dog passengers diverted their attention from the road, whether because they were preventing the dogs from climbing into the front seat (19 percent) or reaching into the back seat to interact with them (18 percent).
Michigan is not the first state to consider or introduce such legislation. Several states have laws on the books governing how dogs must be restrained while being transported, but only three specifically ban pets in drivers' laps or require drivers to properly crate or harness a pet. Here are some examples.
- Hawaii, New Jersey and Rhode Island outright ban pets in laps.
- Connecticut, Maine and Massachusetts can charge drivers under a general law prohibiting distracted driving or "interference with operation."
- Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota and New Hampshire ban unrestrained animals in the bed of pickup trucks.
- Drivers in Massachusetts also could be charged with animal cruelty if the situation endangers the pet enough to be deemed "unnecessarily cruel or inhumane."
What the Animal Experts Say
Animal experts agree that new legislation banning dogs in laps while driving is a step in the right direction, but laws aren't enough to ensure everyone stays safe on the road. Lindsey Wolko, the founder of the nonprofit Center for Pet Safety, isn't opposed to the law or others like it, but she thinks there are better approaches. Via email, Wolko explains that she thinks it's more important to educate pet parents so they make the right choices than expect them to do the bare minimum simply to avoid getting a ticket.
"I've been studying pet travel for well over a decade and personally feel legislation is not a good tool to curb these problems," Wolko says. "I believe that education and awareness is a critical tool to help pet owners understand that certain behaviors are more risky than others."
"I'm in favor of pets being safely, comfortably restrained for their own protection, as well as for the safety of the driver, passengers and other motorists," Melanie Monteiro, another pet safety expert, says via email. According to Monteiro, there are a lot of ways beyond just distractions that unrestrained dogs can be hazards. For instance, Monteiro says:
- Pets riding in a driver's lap can accidentally get between the driver's feet and the pedals.
- If there's an accident or the driver has to slam on the brakes, the dog can be crushed by the steering wheel, or worse, go through the windshield, or become a deadly projectile and injure the driver or passengers.
- If the airbags deploy, the force (approximately 200 mph) can seriously harm or kill a pet.
- In the aftermath of an accident, some dogs may become panicked and try to attack first responders; unrestrained pets can also escape, get hit by a car, or bolt and become lost.
The safest way to take your pet along in the car, Monteiro says, is in a carrier, travel harness or kennel that's crash-tested and approved by the Center for Pet Safety. Monteiro and Wolko both say it's ultimately up to drivers to research and use the proper restraints when they have a dog in the car. Whether or not these restraints — or Michigan's driving with a dog in the lap — will become law is anyone's guess. But one thing is likely: Even if your state does not strictly prohibit you from driving with a dog in your lap, if he's causing you to drive dangerously, the police will probably find some way to cite you.