Over 80% of dog owners drive with their dogs unrestrained in their vehicle, according to industry surveys. With more states enacting legislation, driving with a loose dog may soon become illegal where you live.
Most responsible parents would never drive without their child secured with a seat belt or car seat. Wouldn’t it make sense to also treat fur children the same? Unsurprisingly, 83% of respondents agree that driving with an unrestrained dog is dangerous. Yet only a staggering 16% of dog owners actually use some form of dog seatbelt restraint while on drives with their dog!
Studies show driving with an unrestrained dog is a severe road safety hazard. As more states enact legislation, driving with a loose dog may soon become illegal where you live. Many aren’t aware of the danger. A loose 60-pound (27 kg) dog can turn into a 2700-pound (1225 kg) missile in 35-mph (56 kph) car crash. This is a deadly hazard for both people in the car and our canine companions.
Nevertheless, driving with an unrestrained dog in the car is the norm. And it poses more risks than one might think. The question is; is it illegal in your state, and what should you do to protect your dog and your family?
Is driving without a dog seat belt dangerous?
A loose dog flying through the windshield or hitting the humans in the front seats during a collision poses only part of the problem. Although it is obviously a severe hazard.
Volvo’s recent study reveals that unsafe driving habits more than doubled in drivers with unrestrained dogs versus those who restrained their dog with a crate or doggy seat belt.
Owners driving with their dogs freely moving about the vehicle sometimes had their dogs on their laps or hanging out of the car window.
This kind of behavior has had tragic consequences, as in the case of the 8-month-old Bullmastiff puppy, Mastis.
In 2015, Mastis leaped into the front seat, causing the driver to lose control of the vehicle in Santa Ana, California. The car flipped and was engulfed in flames. Luckily, both the owner and puppy survived.
Furthermore, while dogs do love to hang their heads out the window, they are at serious risk of injury doing so. Flying objects like pebbles that can crack a windshield might strike your dog’s face.
Another potential catastrophe is a dog leaping from a moving vehicle or jumping out of an opening door when it isn’t safe to do so. A secured dog can be held in place until the owner decides it is safe for them to get out.
In the event of a car crash, a restrained dog can also save lives. A traumatized and protective dog may block emergency services from reaching its owner. For example, in Brazil, a dog leaped into a stretcher and tried to prevent his injured owner from reaching an ambulance.
Equally upsetting are the cases where dogs run away from a collision site and may be lost.
The Volvo study also showed that drivers with unrestrained dogs were distracted more than 10% of the total driving time.
Over a total period of 30 hours, owners who had loose dogs took their eyes off the road for an average of 3.39 hours. Meanwhile, owners with restrained dogs were only distracted for only 1.39 hours, less than half the time.
As with young Mastis the Bullmastiff, distractions caused by dogs on the road can have drastic consequences.
A famous example took place in 1999 when writer Stephen King was struck by a driver who claimed he was distracted by his dog and veered off the road. King was hit and sustained severe injuries.
Another study conducted in 2015 focused on the risk posed to older drivers. It showed that pet owners above the age of 70 who routinely drove with their pets had a much higher motor vehicle collision rate.
Figure 1: Motor vehicle accidents in urban dogs: a study of 600 cases
Even if there is no collision, driving with your dog loose in the car is stressful for both dog and driver. Volvo found that both dogs and drivers had lower heart rates when the dog was properly buckled in.
Are dog seat belts required by law in your state?
In response to growing awareness about the dangers of unrestrained canines while driving, states are gradually passing laws on the matter. Also, the number of heated debates on the subject are increasing.
It is likely that as time goes by, more and more states will begin jumping on the seat belt bandwagon as people adjust to the idea of buckling in their fur friends.
What is allowed currently varies from state to state, our article on dog friendly states is a good starting point to learn more about specific locations.
It is important to know your home state’s dog seat belt laws. But it’s also a good idea to look into any state that you’re traveling to ensure you’re correctly abiding by all regulations.
In general, most states don’t have a specific law regarding dog seat belts. However, many do have some sort of regulation for restraining dogs inside or outside of a vehicle.
Let’s go through the current laws in each state.
|State Laws on dog seat belts|
|Alabama||While there are no specific laws regarding seat belts, animal cruelty laws may be applied. A traffic warden or police officer that feels the dog is transported in a way that endangers its life can take action.|
|Alaska||No laws regarding restraints, but there may be individual city laws prohibiting dogs from being loose on the back of a pick-up truck.|
||There has been a heated debate in the in-state legislature about driving with pets in Arizona. Currently, they have laws prohibiting leaving an animal unattended in a vehicle. Although there is no specific law yet to keep dogs restrained, the state may use distracted driving laws to charge people with a pet on their lap.|
|California||There is no specific law regarding dogs tethered inside a vehicle, but dogs on the back of a truck must be cross-tethered or in a crate. People driving with dogs on laps can be subject to fines.|
|Colorado||No specific laws, although anti-distracted driving campaigns are raising awareness on the issue.|
|Connecticut||While there are no specific laws on doggy seat belts or restraints inside care, dogs on laps or unsecured dogs on the back of a truck can incur hefty fines.|
|D.C.||D.C. currently has no laws regarding restrained dogs in cars.|
|Delaware||No current laws|
|Florida||No current laws|
|Georgia||No current laws|
|Hawaii||It is illegal to drive with your pet in your lap or in the driver’s immediate vicinity.|
|Idaho||No current laws|
|Illinois||No current laws|
|Indiana||No current laws|
|Iowa||No current law regarding unrestrained dogs. However, Iowa code 321.363 prohibits driving with an obstructed view, which may extend to a dog sitting on the driver’s lap.|
|Kansas||No current laws|
|Kentucky||No current laws|
|Louisiana||No current laws|
|Maine||Maine state law requires that dogs wear seat belts or are kept in an enclosed section of the vehicle. Drivers with dogs on their laps can be charged with distracted driving.|
|Maryland||Maryland law does not specify laws on dogs and pets in the vehicle. However, the 2013 Maryland Transportation Code 21 1104 does not allow a person driving on a highway any object, obstruction, or material which may impede driving. This may include dogs on the lap.|
|Massachusetts||Massachusetts has no laws specifying seat belts inside the car. However, dogs on the back of trucks need to be adequately tethered or confined to crates. The sides and tailgate also need to reach a specific height.
Also, there are strict rules regarding anything in the car that may impede or obstruct the driver while operating the vehicle, including loose dogs.
Finally, the police may fine owners if they feel the dog is being transported cruelly or inhumanely.
|Michigan||House Bill 5277 proposes a fine for any driver operating a vehicle with a dog on the lap. If the bill passes, drivers may be subject to a $100 penalty on the first violation and $200 for subsequent offenses. The bill has not yet been approved as law.|
|Mississippi||There are no specific laws about securing a dog inside the car with a seat belt. But, the Mississippi Dog and Cat Pet Protection Law of 2011, M.S. Code Section 97 41 16, can charge owners with misdemeanors if they are deemed to be traveling with their pet in a cruel manner. This can extend to a lack of proper safety precautions.|
|Missouri||No current laws|
|Montana||No current laws|
|Nevada||Nevada has no current laws. However, statute NRS 574.190 prohibits inhumane and cruel methods of transporting pets.|
|New Hampshire||While New Hampshire has no laws regarding seat belts, it does ban unsecured dogs on the back of a truck. The sides of the truck and the tailgate also need to be of adequate height.
Dogs need to be crated or cross tethered.
|New Jersey||In New Jersey, driving with unrestrained pets is an animal cruelty violation. Drivers who violate the laws can be subject to fines ranging from $250 to $1000 and may even face jail time.|
|New Mexico||No current laws|
|New York||No current laws|
|North Carolina||A law was proposed in 2017 to ban dogs riding on driver’s laps. It is unclear whether this law was passed.|
|North Dakota||No current laws|
|Ohio||Ohio has no laws on restraining dogs in vehicles. Still, it does have laws banning traveling with dogs in an inhumane manner.|
|Oklahoma||Like Ohio, Oklahoma views traveling with dogs in a cruel and inhumane manner as grounds for a misdemeanor.|
|Oregon||No current laws regarding restraint inside the car, but dogs on the back of trucks need to be safely secured.|
|Pennsylvania||No current laws|
|Rhode Island||Rhode Island has strict laws regarding dogs in vehicles. They must be safely contained in a crate or secured with an appropriate seat belt or harness. Somebody other than the driver may also hold the dog. Offenses may be fined up to $ 200.|
|South Carolina||A constraint is not explicitly required, but tickets can be given for negligence if a dog is deemed to be making driving unsafe, such as by sitting on the driver’s lap.|
|South Dakota||No current laws|
|Tennessee||Dogs do not need seat belts by law, but they are prohibited from being transported cruelly.|
|Texas||Like Tennessee, dogs do not need to be constrained inside the vehicle, but there are laws against inhumane confinement.|
|Vermont||Laws stipulate that dogs may not be transported in an inhumane way.|
|Virginia||Virginia law does not specifically require a seat belt. However, regulations require that drivers take adequate care of their dogs while driving. A law passed in 2017 concerns explicitly distracted driving and listed unrestrained pets as possible distractions. The DMV recommends that dogs be restrained in moving vehicles.|
|Washington||Like Virginia, the law in Washington is vague about seat belts. Nevertheless, a distracted driving law passed in 2017 emphasizes loose dogs on the driver’s lap as a possible distraction. Further to this, there are also laws about the safe and humane way to transport animals.|
|West Virginia||No current laws|
|Wisconsin||No laws concerning retraining in cars. However, some laws prohibit cruel transport practices.|
|Wyoming||No current laws|
International laws on dog seat belts
Let’s also look at some international laws for dog seat belts in case you get to bring your best friend abroad.
Driving with an unrestrained pet in the U.K.? Think again. As part of the Highway Code, drivers with unrestrained pets can be subject to hefty fines.
Animals need to be restrained with a seat belt harness, pet carrier, or pet cage to prevent distracted driving and ensure the animal’s welfare. Car insurance companies in the U.K. also warn that accidents caused by unrestrained pets may not be covered.
Australia is another country that has taken unrestrained dogs while driving very seriously.
Drivers in this country face heavy fines and demerit points on their license if caught driving with a dog on their lap or between them and the handlebars of their motorcycle.
Dogs are also restrained with a leash or cage when riding on a ute and must be relegated to the vehicle’s appropriate area.
Dogs also cannot be led outside by a car, bicycle, or motorcycle while the vehicle is moving.
Not only can drivers be hit with distracted driving fines, but they can also be subjected to jail time. There are even heavier fines if an unrestrained animal is injured in a traffic accident.
What is the safest way to secure a dog while driving?
There are plenty of ways to secure a dog in a car to not distract or bother the driver. We cover each of them extensively in our complete guide to dog seatbelts article.
The main methods used are:
- A pet carrier or crate
- A shield mesh between the front and back seat
- A doggy seat belt.
Shields and carriers are a great way to keep your dog out of the way and confined when driving.
But meshes and crates are problematic. They do not stop a dog from being violently flung about the backseat, and the thinner fabric meshes can simply give way in the event of a real collision.
Owners are encouraged to do their research on seat belts and harnesses as well. A seat belt that is too long or that doesn’t have any elastic “give” can’t absorb the shock of a sudden stop and, at best, can result in severe whiplash for the pup.
A seat belt attached to a collar can cause massive trauma to a dog’s neck vertebrae and trachea in the event of a sudden stop. Regular walking harnesses can also twist and cause damage.
A 2015 case study on a dog in a car accident concluded that the best harness should be large and carefully made to fit the dog’s dimensions.
The more body area it covers, the more shock can be evenly distributed.
There should be no chance of it slipping up the dog’s neck or twisting around the chest in an accident.
Finally, a restraint needs to be short to limit how far the dog could be thrown.
Whether your best friend is a frequent road tripper or an only-when-necessary traveler, proper restraint is a must in any moving vehicle.
It may or may not yet be the law in your state, but it is the mark of a responsible dog owner. Following the international footsteps of the UK and Australia, we’re expecting clearer regulations to become more widespread within the United States throughout the years ahead.
Please share this article with other fellow dog owners!
Tamsin De La HarpeAuthor
Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions.
Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.
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