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We’ve all driven down the road only to burst out laughing at a dog with his head out the car window catching air in his cheeks — somewhat akin to wind in the sails of a boat, only there’s drool flying in all directions.

Chances are if you take a road trip this summer, you’ll pass plenty of these scenarios — whether you’re heading out on your next camping trip, exploring some national parks or taking a short drive up the coast. Dogs are no longer just a lawn ornament: these days, they really live up to their name as Man’s Best Friend. In fact, there are over 60 million U.S. households that own dogs, and that number only continues to rise year over year. So, it makes sense that we bring our fur children with us everywhere we go — that includes dog-friendly places and where it’s not too hot out.

This trend has driven the rise in pet-friendly restaurants, hotels and even shopping malls, which means there are more pups taking to the road than ever before. And while we love seeing Fido in the car, unrestrained dogs can prove to be potentially deadly distractions when accompanying their owners behind the wheel. So, at the height of the summer travel season, we surveyed dog parents about their driving habits to see just how their unrestrained fur children pose risks on the road. Dive into the data below to learn how drivers and dogs engage in distracting behaviors, road safety pet laws and ways to keep Fido, you and others safe on the road.

Drivers Know the Dangers

To best understand the findings of our survey, it’s important to look at why driving with an unrestrained dog in the car is dangerous.

  1. The laws of physics apply to your dog. Pet restraints prevent your pup from becoming a forceful projectile upon impact, just as seat belts keep you and passengers safe.
  2. Unrestrained dogs can be a significant distraction. Dogs who are loose in the car can interfere with your pedal operation, steering, airbag effectiveness, ability to see blind spots and more.
  3. Dogs who hang their heads out the window are at risk for being struck by an object, on the road or off.
  4. In case of an accident, your dog may survive but can face other dangers. It’s common for unrestrained dogs to be ejected from the vehicle. Frightened and possibly hurt, your pup could run off into oncoming traffic or go missing.
  5. It’s not unheard of for typically sweet dogs to become aggressive when trapped or wounded. First responders have reported dogs in cars guarding their injured owners, delaying help from paramedics.

brown dog in front seat of car

These factors may seem obvious, but we found that nearly ⅓ of respondents have never considered the dangers of driving with an unrestrained dog in the car. Most drivers have never been in an accident with their dogs, so it’s understandable that pet safety restraints don’t come into play on many road trips.

However, our most shocking finding was the level of negligence when it came to using pet restraints. 47% of dog owners surveyed acknowledged the dangers of driving with an unrestrained dog, yet continue to do it anyways. Common reasons included owners felt their dog was too calm for a restraint, while others thought they were unnecessary for short trips or wanted their dog to enjoy sticking their head out the window. Some dog owners simply wanted Fido to be close to them or felt restraints were inconvenient.

white dog in using a seatbelt

Yet, considering that the average dog has roughly a 15-year life span, odds are that at some point in their lives, owners and dogs will have an accident while driving together. If anything, surviving such a circumstance certainly makes a case for why every dog owner should use a pet restraint.

How Distracting Behaviors Stack Up for Drivers and Dogs

Both dogs and their owners are to blame for common distractions that come with taking Fido on a road trip. In fact, AAA estimates that unrestrained dogs are a contributing factor to tens of thousands of car accidents annually. So, we asked dog owners about the top offenses committed by dogs and humans to see what happens behind the wheel.

The most common offense was dogs climbing into their owners’ laps while driving (41%). Whether your dog is 10 pounds or 40 pounds, they’re too big to sit in your lap, and for practical reasons: when a dog sits on your lap during the drive, it inhibits proper steering, blocks blind spots and often restricts the driver from keeping both hands on the wheel. And depending on where you live, this is even considered illegal.

The second most common offense was dogs who pawed or nudged their owner in the car (27%), followed by dogs who blocked the passenger side window or blind spot (11%). Some owners also reported their dogs stepping on the gear shifter while on the road.

dogs distract their owners

On the driver’s side, there was no shortage of perilous behaviors. Over half of dog owners said they’ve reached into the back seat to attend to their pup (52%) and in doing so, turned their body and focus away from the road.

Other distracting behaviors that involved drivers taking a hand off the steering wheel included using hands or arms to hold their dog in place while breaking (23%) or blocking the dog from climbing into the front seat (19%). And, of course, let’s not forget that bane of Western civilization — the selfie. A small percentage of dog parents even admitted to taking pictures of themselves and their canine companion while behind the wheel.

driver distractions with their pets

Where Are Pet Restraint Laws Enforced?

While laws against driving offenses like using cellphones and texting are strictly implemented around the country, there are some states that have turned their attention to pet restraint laws. True, the majority of the country doesn’t enforce these, but there are still some states where it will cost you.

Distracted driving with pets and other animal-related offenses could get you a ticket just as easily as other common driving offenses. Take Hawaii: it’s one of the few states that explicitly forbids drivers having a dog on their lap. The greater New England area also puts a focus on the dangers of driving with unrestrained pets, specifically in the bed of trucks. In Connecticut, dogs being transported in an open truck bed must be in a crate or cage, or must be secured to prevent them from falling, jumping or being thrown from the vehicle.

states where pet safety restraint laws are enforced

In recent years, several states have considered legislation to make dog seat belts mandatory. New Jersey even made headlines when it proposed a law that called for seat belts for dogs. Currently, only eight states have laws stating that your dog must wear a canine-specific restraint in a vehicle: Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Connecticut, Hawaii, New Jersey, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.

Other restraint requirements have been met with varying degrees of success — usually in the form of restricting dogs to the back seat of the car but not actually mandating a restraint system.

A Call to Action

Unfortunately, it often takes knowing someone who was in a crash with their dog or experiencing it yourself to implement a pet restraint. The use of a pet restraint is three times more common among people who have heard of situations where unrestrained dogs were injured or caused injury to other passengers in a car crash (32%), compared to respondents who are unaware of such a situation (9%).

We hope it doesn’t take a first-hand experience for you to start using a doggy restraint system. But in case you’re not sold on their value, consider the force of a crash.

An unrestrained 10-pound dog in a crash at 50 mph will exert roughly 500 pounds of pressure, and an unrestrained 80-pound dog at only a 30 mph crash will exert approximately 2,400 pounds of pressure.

force of a dog in a crash

So, that’s what airbags are for, right? Wrong.

In the event of a crash, airbags may save you, but this isn’t always the case for pets. Airbags save lives, but they explode with so much force that they can severely injure or even kill lightweight front-seat passengers. Treat airbag dangers the same for dogs as you would children 12 years old and younger. They’re not supposed to ride upfront or be in a seat where they can be crushed by an airbag that deploys.

How to Drive With Your Dog Safely

What’s the best way to minimize distractions and help maintain focus while sharing a car’s cabin with a dog? Just like the rest of us, they should buckle up, so to speak. Drivers should use a pet restraint system for their dog every time they ride in the vehicle. Doing so not only limits distractions but also protects everyone in the car in the event of a crash or sudden stop.

This infographic explains some important steps you should take to help you and your pup make it safely from point A to point B and what to do in the event of a crash.

dog safety while driving infographic

Hit the Road in Style and Safety

Moral of the story: no matter how funny it is to pass a car and see a dog’s nose pressed up against the passenger window or its cheeks catching wind from the sunroof, it’s dangerous. Using a pet restraint for your pup is a key element to road safety. For those of us who’ve spent years letting our dogs roam the car during road trips, it can take some adjustment to get your dog used to a restraint system.

Fortunately, there’s no shortage of options out there. From metal barriers that attach to the frame of your car to crash-tested safety harnesses, there’s something out there for every dog and owner’s travel style. Before you commit to a long road trip with your dog’s new safety restraint, take a couple of test drives around your neighborhood to help build up to a long drive.

So, next time you plan to hit the road, don’t forget to pack your pup’s safety restraint along with the rest of your road trip essentials.

Additional Sources:
Forbes | Outside Online | Orvis | Kurgo | AMVA