(DOGS/PET CARE) It’s a serious danger and a police officer’s pet peeve: Drivers with a dog roaming freely in the car, or worse, sitting in the driver’s lap. A new study shows why an unrestrained pet in your vehicle is at least as dangerous as talking on the phone or texting. The best advice: Don’t Pet And Drive. – Global Animal

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services, Jon Hilkevitch

CHICAGO – Safety experts have a new pet peeve related to distracted driving.

In addition to texting or talking on a cell phone while driving, lap dogs and other pets left unrestrained inside moving vehicles pose a major distraction that could be deadly, a new study released Wednesday warns motorists.

About two-thirds of dog owners surveyed by the AAA organization said they routinely drive while petting or playing with their dogs, sometimes even giving them food or water while maneuvering through traffic.

It has been a common sight for many years to see dogs hanging their heads out of open car windows with their ears flapping in the breeze. But in the cocoon that the automobile has become, more drivers are nonchalantly cradling their dogs atop their laps or perching the animals on their chests with the pet’s front paws clutching the driver’s neck or shoulders.

It’s risky behavior for the driver and dangerous for the pets, too.

An 80-pound dog unrestrained during a crash at 30 mph exerts 2,400 pounds of force in a vehicle, creating a danger for the dog and anyone in its path, according to Motivation Design LLC, a company that manufactures pet travel products, including restraint systems for pets, under the brand name Kurgo.

“As about 40 percent of Americans own dogs. We see this as an increasingly big problem,” said Beth Mosher, spokeswoman for AAA of Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.

Dogs inside wrecked vehicles often become territorial and protective of their owners when police and emergency-responders try to rescue injured occupants, sometimes leaving authorities no other option than to shoot the animal in order to help the driver and passengers, say Illinois State Police troopers who have been dispatched to such accident scenes.

“The last thing you want to do is to put the dog down, but you have a possible hurt animal that is acting in self-preservation and protecting its owner,” said Sgt. Brian Copple, manager of the safety education unit of the State Police.

Unlike the seat belt law for humans, there are no state laws requiring drivers to buckle up their pets or prohibiting them from holding animals on their laps, officials said. But police can ticket drivers for having an obstructed view of the road or being obstructed from using the steering wheel and other mechanisms in the vehicle.

“I’ve never written a ticket in 21 years for this type of violation. But I have stopped people with dogs on their laps and told them how unsafe it is,” Copple said.

Most drivers don’t realize that a dog moving around a vehicle or sitting on someone’s lap can injure or kill occupants during a crash, particularly if air bags deploy, Copple said.

“If the animal is sitting between the steering wheel and the driver, the air bag will throw the animal back at you with great force,” Copple said.

“An air bag is designed to catch a 160-pound person. It’s not meant to protect Fluffy,” he added.

About 6,000 people died in crashes involving a distracted or inattentive driver in 2008 and more than 500,000 were injured, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

AAA and Kurgo were partners in the survey of 1,000 dog owners who have driven with their pets in the last year.

Fifty-five percent of the drivers polled said they have pet their dog while driving, and 21 percent said they held the dog in their lap. Seven percent said they have given food and water to their dog while driving, and 5 percent said they have played with their dog while behind the steering wheel.

Such behaviors are relevant because looking away from the road for only two seconds doubles the risk of being in a crash, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

While 80 percent of poll respondents said they take their dogs on a variety of car trips, only 17 percent said they use a pet-restraint system to limit distractions and protect their pet. Such safeguards include harnesses, backseat barriers and special portable seats designed for animals.

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