Is it legal to drive with a loose dog in the car?
Most dogs love jumping in the car and riding around town with their family. How often do you see a dog with its head hanging out a car window watching the world go by? Or, often we all see dogs riding loose staring out the window or even riding in the driver’s lap.
I think common sense tells you a loose pet running around in a moving vehicle can be at the very least distracting but also dangerous. I may be wrong about that. But for the most part, no specific laws come straight out and clearly prohibit the practice.
As we’ll see in a moment, a loose dog in the car can actually be a horror.
How safe can driving with a loose dog in the car be?
Distracted driving tops the list of accident causes. As we’ve pointed out in other blog articles texting, jabbering on the phone and eating top the list of driver distractions. Accidents can also be caused by a loose animal in the car.
Although documented numbers are not available at this time, accident experts believe that tens of thousands of car accidents are caused annually in the U.S. by unrestrained pets in the vehicle.
“An unrestrained pet can be hugely distracting – If he is seeking your attention, putting his face right in front of yours, starts chewing up the upholstery or is vomiting because he is carsick …”
Katherine Miller – ASPCA
There’s a problem with gathering reliable statistics on accidents caused by loose animals in a car. After an accident the guilty driver would have to admit it. But dogs do sit or stand on the driver’s lap, ride shotgun and rest their paws on the dashboard. At a moment’s notice the animal may jump, bolt or suddenly move around, threatening the normal operation of the car.
Dogs in Cars & State Laws
As of the date of this post, and we update our posts when needed, few if any states have clear laws specifically banning loose dogs in cars.
In New Hampshire, no law requires dogs to be seat belted, in a crate or otherwise restrained while riding in a car. New Hampshire does have a law on the books restricting how you carry a dog in the back of a pickup truck. If the tail and sides of the truck are less than 46 inches, the dog must be “cross tethered”, in a crate or otherwise protected:
… in a manner which will prevent the dog from being thrown or falling or jumping from the vehicle.”
New Hampshire RSA § 644:8-f.
In Massachusetts a similar law requires protection of dogs in the back of trucks where the sides and back are less than 46 inches. That’s Massachusetts MGL c. 90 § 22.
Massachusetts has no law specifically requiring the restraint of dogs in cars. It has been suggested that the following Massachusetts law hiding in the “rules of the road” could be interpreted that way:
“No person, when operating a motor vehicle shall permit to be on or in the vehicle or on or about his person anything which may interfere with or impede the proper operation of the vehicle …”
MGL c. 90 § 13.
A loose dog in the car can obviously interfere with or impede safe operation of a vehicle. A small dog could climb under the brake pedal or directly in front of the driver. There’s room for argument though that the Massachusetts law is too general and does not specifically prohibit a dog.
A Dog in the Car Can Be a Horror
Famous horror novelist Steven King suffered several broken bones and a collapsed lung in June 1999 when he was hit by a mini-van whose driver claimed he was distracted by his dog. The best-selling author was apparently walking near his Maine home one Saturday afternoon when the distracted driver slammed into him with enough force to push him over the top of the vehicle and into a ditch. Fortunately the author whose works have inspired many films and nightmares lived to continue a prolific career.
Distractions Caused by Dogs in a Car
A survey by the American Auto Association found one in five drivers admit to taking their hands off the wheel to keep dogs from climbing into the front seat. Other distractions admitted to by survey respondents:
- Using hands or arms to hold dog in place while applying brakes (23%)
- Reaching into back seat to pet or interact with dog (18%)
- Allowing dog to sit in lap while driving (17%)
- Giving dog food or treats (13%)
- Playing with dog while driving (4%)
- Taking photo of dog while driving (3%)
Any of those things distract the driver. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety indicates looking away from the road for two seconds doubles chances of an accident.
Dogs can be Injured in the Car
Having a dog running around in a moving vehicle endangers not only the people and other drivers but also the dog. Pet owners who realize this often use a harness or carrier and secure the pet in the middle of the back seat. That reduces the likelihood of the pet becoming a projectile and hurting itself and others.
Keeping the dog secure in the car also reduces the likelihood the dog might run away if there is an accident. Terrified after a car accident, a loose dog could run off only to be hit by another car or to become lost in unfamiliar territory, never to be seen again.
Actual Dog laws
A very few places have laws specifically regulating dogs in cars. A Troy, Michigan law makes it illegal to drive with a pet in your lap. But for the most part, those who make the laws feel that they can’t pass a law for each and every bad driver behavior. They believe distracted driving laws like those above should cover it.
If you are in a jurisdiction where a specific dog-in-the-car law has passed, let us know by responding below.
After an Accident
If you have been injured in a car accident, protect your rights. Call my office to optimize your valid claim for the legitimate injuries caused by a distracted driver.
Car accident lawyer practicing in North Andover, Massachusetts for 23 years. New Hampshire Personal injury attorney.
Model credit: Alyssa Antoniou
AAA/Kurgo Pet Passenger Study
Another Road Danger: Pets Loose in Cars, Even in Drivers’ Laps, The Seattle Times, January 21, 2011.
Horror Master Stephen King Seriously Injured When Struck By Van, CNN.com, June 19, 1999.