Should Distracted Driving Laws Apply to Your Dog? Survey Shows Americans Equally Divided on the Issue

Laws restricting cell phone usage to prevent distracted driving are becoming more commonplace. But what about legislation designed to address another common distraction in your car—your cute fluffy dog? That was the focus of a recent survey commissioned which documented that a vast majority of dog owners with a driver’s license (92%) take their dogs in the car with them.

It’s true. All that barking and jumping can be distracting. And if that distraction causes an accident, the consequences could be serious.  According to the advocacy group Bark Buckle UP®, an unrestrained 60-pound dog can turn into a 2700-pound projectile in a 35-mph car crash when you apply mechanical force calculations.

But does that mean we need laws requiring our pups to be restrained, much in the same way that humans are required to wear seat belts? Some states seem to think so, which could soon make a loose dog in your car illegal. Although the reality is that only a few states have passed legislation that specifically mandates dog restraints (Rhode IslandHawaii and New Jersey), more states are starting to apply general distracted driving standards to situations with unrestrained dogs and citing drivers whose dog’s behavior is considered disruptive.

Needless to say, such action is not going over well with all dog owners. The survey demonstrated that American dog owners with a driver’s license who drive with their dog in the car are split right down the middle (50%) as to whether or not they think there should be laws mandating that dogs be restrained while in a moving vehicle.

In the same survey, 50% of dog owners with a driver’s license who drive with their dog in the car believe their dog could cause an accident while in the car with them. Just how much are our dogs distracting us?  According to a study conducted by Volvo in 2019, 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 three and a half hours. Meanwhile, owners with restrained dogs were only distracted for 1.39 hours, less than half the time.

Part of the reason for the distraction is where the dogs are located in the car. According to the Erie Insurance survey, the majority of dogs (69%) sit in the back seat when they’re in the car.

However, a whopping 41% of dog owners with a driver’s license who drive with their dog in the car put their dogs in the front passenger seat, even though the risk of injury from airbags or flying through the windshield is significantly higher there.

Perhaps even more troubling is the fact that of dog owners with a driver’s license who drive with their dogs, 13% drive with their dogs on their laps.

Dogs can also be distracting because of humans’ desire to keep them entertained. In the survey, 83% of dog owners with a driver’s license who drive with their dog in the car admitted to “entertaining” their dogs on a long road trip. Men were the bigger culprits in this area, with 88% of them claiming to entertain their dogs on long road trips compared to 77% of women.

The specific type of entertainment varied, with 45% letting their canine friends participate in the pastime of hanging their heads out the window. This can be distracting if you have to keep worrying about them jumping out or stepping on the button and inadvertently adjusting the window height.  Nine percent let their dogs watch something on their phones. Again, men do this more often with 11% of men admitting they rely on this tactic vs. 6% of women.

Essentially, there are three ways for ensuring your dog is not a distraction while on the road with you:

  • Bring a passenger with you who is responsible for calming, controlling and restraining your dog.
  • Use any number of approved, specially designed dog restraint solutions, including harnesses, dog crates/carriers, dog car seats or hammocks. Or, if necessary for a long road trip, you might also request medication from your vet to help sedate your dog.
  • Train your dog to become a less distracting, better-behaved passenger.