Pooch Protection 101: Keeping Your Dog Safe In Your Car

Six Tips For Pet-Safe Travel

Unrestrained pets cause more than 30,000 accidents annually, according to the American Automobile Association (AAA), and the Travel Industry Association of America says 29 million Americans have traveled with a pet on a trip of 50 miles or more in the past five years. With those kinds of numbers, it's important to remember that pets have special needs on the road.

Different drivers approach the issue with different degrees of hands-on management.

"I don't allow any dogs on the front seat," says Ariel Freiheit of Connecticut. "I just block their access with a 'no.'"

But the rear seat isn't always a guarantee of safety. Dog owner Jack Ridge of New York learned the lesson first hand.

"Just having the dog in the back really is no protection," said Ridge. "Before I started putting my beagle in a restraint, I had her in the back once and had to slam on my brakes. No accident, no skidding -- just hard braking. She went right between the two front seats and ended up almost on top of the gear shift."

Restrain Your Dog

Andrea Arden, trainer on the Animal Planet's "Dogs 101" and author of "Dog-Friendly Dog Training," reminds owners that while dogs want to be free, keeping them in place keeps them safer.

"Always restrain your pet for safe car travel," Arden said. "Unrestrained pets can be a distraction to drivers and can get injured if the car makes a sudden stop or is involved in an accident even at low speeds. Secure your pet in a crate or with a harness to keep them safe."

Harnesses and crates are fine for small and medium-sized dogs, but pose challenges for dog-owners with big dogs. "I would love to use a harness but my dogs can't stand it," says animal lover Orlando Clarke. "They panic and get tangled up. I got an SUV just to have a big enough rear to contain them. It works pretty well since the entire area behind rear seats can be blocked off."

Don't Put Your Dog On Your Lap

One of the biggest hazards, not only to pets but also to their owners and even other drivers, is the motorist who insists on keeping Fluffy on their lap, which makes it impossible for drivers to respond immediately to road emergencies. The animal can also be hit by passing cars if it bolts out of the vehicle after a crash.

Hawaii is currently the only state that bans drivers from operating a vehicle with a pet on their lap, but Oregon lawmakers are considering legislation and some cities are taking action, too. Troy, a suburb of Detroit, passed a bill banning dogs from lap-riding on January 1 of this year. Still, others are giving drivers and their pets a little more freedom. In 2008, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a California bill that would have fined drivers $35 for sharing the driver's seat with lapdogs or other animals, saying the bill wasn't a priority. A Republican assemblyman had introduced the bill after seeing a woman driving with three dogs on her lap.

The issue has gained attention in recent years as the issue of distracted driving elevates in the public's consciousness. In 2009, 5,474 people were killed and 448,000 injured in crashes caused by distracted drivers in the United States, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, although it's difficult to assign the number of those where pets were involved. In perhaps one of the most famous incidents of distracted driving involving a pet, author Stephen King suffered several broken bones and a collapsed lung in 1999 when he was hit by a driver who claimed he was distracted by his dog.

Pet-Friendly Vehicles

Research Pet-Friendly Vehicles

Honda Element Best Deal
Toyota Venza Best Deal

Auto manufacturers have responded to car-buyers' requests for pet-friendly wheels in recent years. The Honda Element, which is in its final model year of production, features the following optional equipment:

-A cushioned pet bed in the cargo area with an elevated platform
-Second row and cargo area pet restraint systems
-An extendable cargo area load-in ramp
-A 12V DC rear ventilation fan
-Second-row seat covers with a dog pattern design (matches the bed fabric)
-All-season rubber floor mats with a toy bone pattern
-A spill-resistant water bowl

"In an interesting turn of events, cars are now chasing dogs," said John Mendel, executive vice president of American Honda. "Factory integration of a cushioned pet bed, restraint systems and other components is intended to transform the Element into the ultimate dog car."

Toyota's Venza is similarly equipped, and we can expect more manufacturers to offer the options in coming years.

Pet Insurance

Keeping your pet safe while you're driving also makes good financial sense, as anyone who's ever gotten a through-the-roof veterinarian bill knows. Progressive Insurance offers vehicle insurance to protect your dog (or cat) in the event of a crash, paying up to $1,000 if a customer's pet is hurt or dies as a result of an accident. Chubb insurance also offers up to $2,000 in coverage for pets injured or killed in a crash, even if the animal is being pulled in a trailer, although its coverage is limited to Arizona, Maryland, Texas and New Jersey.

Progressive offers the following tips to help keep Fido safe in the car:

Don't let dogs ride with their head out of the window. They can easily be injured by debris flying into their eyes.

Get your pet used to the car and make them feel comfortable. Often, the only time pets ride in the car is when they're visiting the vet, so they may not always associate a car ride with positive feelings and may even be afraid to ride in the car. Teach them instead that car rides can be fun by taking them for short road trips to a dog park or a friend's house for a play date.

Make sure your pet has proper identification. Just in case he or she gets lost while traveling, you want to be sure your pet is wearing up-to-date ID tags with an emergency contact phone number and what, if any, reward is offered for the pet's safe return.

Prepare a doggie bag. Make sure it contains clean-up supplies, a towel, portable feeding/watering bowls, food and water, a pet first aid kit, and toys to keep them busy and well behaved.

You wouldn't let a member of the family dive from the front seat to the back seat to the rear of your car, hang their head out of any available window or climb all over your lap while you try to drive, would you? Don't let your loyal canine do it, either.

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