While it’s not hard to think of all the potential distractions facing drivers these days, one area that probably slips under the radar — as far as the legal system goes — is the commotion caused in a passenger car, not by children or other noisy human passenger, but by pets. Now it goes without saying that dogs and cats are as often occupants of vehicles as one’s relatives, so the opportunity for relatively frequent disruptions inside a car, SUV or minivan is probably quite high. Still, it is interesting that among the myriad of legislative efforts to curb distracted driving, we haven’t seen much about cat and dog distractions… until now, at least.
With cellphone and smartphones, talking and texting while driving have become rather specific problems affecting traffic safety here in Maryland and across the United States. In fact, the threat of distracted driving has become such an serious issue that officials at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in Washington, D.C., issued a recommendation late last year to ban personal electronic devices in motor vehicles nationwide. With upward of 3,000 people a year killed as a result of these types of distractions, it’s not surprising that many safety experts have weighed in on the topic.
Being Baltimore personal injury attorneys at law, my colleagues and I have years of experience in helping victims of car, truck and motorcycle accidents recover costs and other monetary loses associated with traffic accidents that may have left them or a loved one seriously. Closed head injuries, trauma to the back, neck and spinal cord, internal injuries, broken bones and compound fractures are all results of bad roadway collisions between passenger cars and commercial trucks. Any opportunity to reduce the relative carnage on our highways and surface streets would to be a net gain for potential auto accident victims.
Now this may seem a little off the wall to some, but there are safety proponents out there who are suggesting that pets can be one of those in-car distractions that need to be controlled in the future. Over in New Jersey, for instance, the issue of how or where a motorist’s pet is situated in the family car, truck or minivan is being discussed to the point that legislators are already arguing about the amount for any fines levied against drivers who have a free-roaming pet in their vehicle; amounts not dissimilar to those levied against convicted drunken drivers.
Based on news reports, dogs and cats — and who knows, maybe even iguanas and ferrets — are being added to the list of potential driver distractions that may be outlawed in the Garden State. Could this happen here in Maryland? Considering the importance of highway safety, nothing can be discounted. As for fines, at least in Jersey the penalty for not restraining one’s pet could cost somewhere from $250 to as much as nearly $1,000, depending on which way legislators choose to go with the new law.
That recently proposed law could require drivers to maintain their pets securely in the vehicle by requiring that the animal be strapped in using some kind of a harness. If a driver chooses not to secure his Jack Russell, Pekinese or Pug, police would be free to issue a citation at their discretion, much the same as with many mandatory safety belt use laws. For those who might be wondering if such legislation has any potential for passing and actually becoming traffic safety law, one only has to look toward the west at the state of Hawaii, which already has in effect regulations that prohibit dogs from sitting on a driver’s lap while the car is in operation. Furthermore, both Arizona and Connecticut have laws on the books that give a patrolman the authority to cite a driver if the officer believes that a loose pet contributed to a car crash by distracting the motorist.
Much of this latest flurry of what one might call “loose pet legislation” is likely the result of more than a few distracted-driving wrecks involving a loose dog, cat or other animal. Based on a 2011 safety survey by the American Automobile Association (AAA), nearly 20 percent of motorists who brought their pets with them in a car stated to researchers that the animal caused them at least once to remove their hands from the steering wheel while the car was in motion as they tried to keep the animal off the front seat. In addition, according to a Bloomberg news article, nearly one-quarter of all respondents questioned said that, at one time or another they had to physically restrain their dog with one hand while applying the vehicle’s brakes.
New Jersey Contemplates First-Ever Pet Seatbelt Law, MSN.com, September 21, 2012
Doggie Seat Belts Loom in N.J. as Budget Challenges Grow, Bloomberg.com, September 21, 2012