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Survey reveals: Pets are at risk in the car despite owners' good intentions

Nearly half of pet parents choose the most dangerous option when driving with their pets

We surveyed 501 Americans with pets to see what they know about how to travel with a dog or cat in the car. The results indicate that few drivers know state laws regarding devices like dog seat belts and car harnesses, and many don't follow vet-recommended safety practices.

Key takeaways

  • Most pet parents are concerned about their pets in the car, but they don't practice safe habits.
  • Pet parents don't know the laws about how to travel with cats and dogs in the car.
  • Drivers are generally aware of the best way to restrain a dog or cat in a car, but not all restraint devices are created equal.

Owners care about pet car safety, but they don't practice it

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Driving with pets is commonplace — more than a quarter of pet parents surveyed (27%) usually or always travel with their pet. Another 41% take their pet in the car sometimes or as needed. During these trips, most pet parents aren't prioritizing the right things when it comes to pet car safety. Almost half (47%) let their pet roam freely in the car. Nine percent of respondents even admitted to taking photos of their pet while driving.

We asked Lindsey Wolko — the founder of the Center for Pet Safety (CPS), a nonprofit that rates pet products for safety — about these survey results. She wasn't surprised. "Most pet owners want to protect their pets in a crash," she says. "That is their number one goal. They don't even think about themselves. But most pet owners do not restrain or contain in any way."

According to Dr. Chris Roth, resident veterinarian at Pets Best pet insurance, many people don't think it's worth the extra time to secure their pet with a pet safety harness or carrier, especially for short trips. "They think, 'I'm just going on a short trip to the vet. It's only a mile away.'" But even the shortest trip can pose serious dangers, not just to the pet but to anyone in the car. We'd never drive without buckling up our children, and our pets deserve the same consideration.

Most car rides with pets happen close to home — so do most accidents

Dr. Roth is right about the length of trips we take with pets. Most journeys with pets are shorter — more than 85% of pet parents say trips are under 25 miles, and 68% say they're 10 miles or shorter.

And according to the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), most accidents occur within 25 miles of home. Our short routes put pets in the most frequent danger — that makes consistent and proper pet car safety all the more important.

What's more, Wolko says, pet-involved crashes may be more common than we know. "A lot of this data is not captured at the crash time," she says. "When [responders] go to do reconnaissance on a crash or triage a crash, they can see that a dog may have been involved, but it's not typically documented."

What do pet parents think will keep their pets safe in the car?

The overwhelming majority (76%) of pet parents surveyed rely on driving slower to keep their pets safe and comfortable in the car. Justin Sims, a cat owner in Minnesota, finds he's much more vigilant when driving with his cat in the car. "I accelerate and brake more slowly. Both to make sure I'm not having any jarring motions that'll freak [my cat] out, but also to make sure I'm keeping enough tabs on my surroundings where I'm not going to put him in danger."

Many respondents knew the proper way to secure a pet in the car: pet carriers (51%) and seat belt harnesses (46%). But we asked if they actually use those methods, and most don't. When asked to select all the methods they use, only 27% of survey respondents say they use a pet carrier, and only 17% say they use a seat belt harness.

Graphs of how pet owners secure pets

The dangers of not restraining your pet

Dr. Roth sees not using a safety harness and pet seatbelt system, or at least a crate designed for car travel, as the major risk for pets in the car. Letting your dog roam around can not only lead to the dog being badly hurt in a crash — it can also distract the driver, making a crash more likely.

And according to Wolko, a crash with an unrestrained pet isn't just dangerous for the animal. "We've had reports come in where we had an unrestrained 75-pound dog, a Labrador retriever, hit the back of the driver's seat." Tragically, both the driver and the dog in Wolko's story were killed, making the risk just as high for humans as it is for the pet.

According to Dr. Roth, you don't even have to be in a crash to experience a tragic pet-related accident. "I used to practice in Wyoming," he says. "Twice, I've seen someone with the dog in the bed of a pickup truck. They pass a semi and the dog gets sucked out of the bed of the truck." Even if you restrain your dog in the bed of a truck, you can't stop outside forces like passing vehicles and debris from causing serious or fatal harm.

Dogs love to put their heads out the window, but it's a serious risk

Dr. Roth and Wolko say dogs shouldn't be allowed to put their heads out the window — something 41% of drivers surveyed say they do. In addition to more serious injuries from falling out of the window, hitting an object, or distracting the driver, Dr. Roth says, "Foreign material can get in their mouth and eyes — or they can get bee stings."

An unrestrained animal with their head out the window can also fall or jump out of the car, or they may be thrown from the vehicle in a crash. They're then likely to get lost or get hit by another vehicle on the road.

Other risky behaviors when traveling with pets in the car

Traveling with an unrestrained pet encourages other behaviors that can compromise safety for both driver and pet. Our survey revealed that a significant proportion of drivers engage in distracted driving behaviors when driving with pets. While some of these actions may help calm the pet down, they should be done by a passenger rather than the driver.

Graphs of how pet owners secure pets

Our survey also found that common risks vary by type of pet. Dog owners are more likely than cat owners to let their pets stick their heads out the window. Dog owners also keep their pet on their lap while driving twice as much as cat owners. But that doesn't mean cats are safer passengers than dogs.

In fact, Dr. Roth says that driving with an unrestrained cat in the car creates particularly serious hazards. "If you let the cat out, they tend to roam around the car. They can get behind the pedals." You can imagine the danger created by having your cat caught near the gas or brakes.

Justin Sims has traveled long distances with his cat, Simo, in the car. "Our cat does not like the car," he says. "Even when we were doing a two-minute car ride to the vet, he was freaking out. Yowling and screaming and peeing." That made it harder for Sims and his wife to drive without distractions, but they had a cross-country move planned.

"We didn't really have an option to do anything other than a long drive," he says. "We had to medicate him. We hated doing that." In the end, they decided to let the cat roam loose in the passenger area of their van and took precautions to prevent him from getting under the pedals. Still, Sims doesn't feel like it's a perfect solution. "It felt like the only option to get him in the vehicle and calm was to [leave him unrestrained], then monitor the risk accordingly."

How to properly restrain your pets in the car

The same behaviors that keep us safe — following the rules of the road and avoiding aggressive driving — also protect our animal passengers. But properly restraining your pets while they're in the car is essential to keeping them safe.

Always restrain your pets in the backseat

According to Dr. Roth, airbags pose a serious risk to pets who are in the front seat. But in our survey, only 22% reported keeping their pet in the backseat while driving. Airbags deploy enough force to hurt and even kill a pet. Like with children, restraining pets in the backseat is the recommended way to keep them safe from airbags.

If you need to put your pet in the front seat for some reason — like in a pickup truck with only one row of seats — Dr. Roth urges you not to keep your pet in your lap. An animal sitting on your lap can be hurt by the driver's airbag and prevent the airbag from protecting you. Instead, he says, put your pet in the passenger seat and use a harness designed to safely restrain them in the car. That way, "if you get into an accident, they don't fly forward," he says. "A lot of times, you can turn off the airbag on the passenger side. You want to prevent them from flying out or distracting the driver," so you can prioritize the proper restraint of your pet.

Know your area's laws regarding driving with pets

Most drivers in our survey (66%) say they don't know their state's laws for driving with pets — and that's no surprise since laws vary by state and municipality. Compared to safety equipment for human passengers, pet protective devices like dog seat belts aren't clearly or consistently legislated. Some areas have specific requirements for restraining pets, and some have no rules for pet car safety at all. Others determine whether a pet was appropriately restrained on a case-by-case basis.

For example, Rhode Island requires drivers to transport pets in an enclosed area of the vehicle (no truck beds) using a harness that doesn't rely on neck restraint. While the law also allows a passenger to "physically control" the pet, pets aren't allowed to roam free in the car. The rules are clearly defined, as are the penalties: a ticket up to $50 for a first offense and up to $200 for repeat offenses. In contrast, Washington State's animal transport law doesn't list specific restraints or conditions. However, it forbids transporting animals in a manner "that will jeopardize the safety of the animal or the public." Doing so is classified as a misdemeanor and may result in fines or jail time, depending on the sentence.

Our survey shows that the pet parents in regions with clear laws about pet transport are also the ones who know more about the laws. Unfortunately, even in the Northeast — a region with the highest number of state laws about pet transport — only 38% of drivers surveyed are familiar with those laws. Other areas fared worse. In the Midwest, only 28% of drivers say they are familiar with animal transport laws.

Experts agree that in addition to familiarizing yourself with state and municipal laws, restraining your pet safely is a good place to start. Wolko says that some states even have distracted driving laws regarding unrestrained pets. "When [pets] aren't properly secured, they can become a distraction, and therefore, you can be ticketed under distracted driving laws," she says.

To find out if your state requires pet restraints or forbids pet-related driving behaviors, contact your local BMV or DMV, or look up the driving laws in your state and city. Municipalities may have their own rules, so refer to your local laws as well.

Choosing pet car harnesses, dog seat belts, and other equipment

Not all dog seatbelts and pet carriers are created equal. So what makes one suitable for an accident? Wolko says it's important to find dog seat belts, pet carriers for car travel, and other safety devices that are tested with pet models to perform well during a crash.

Wolko's Center for Pet Safety was formed after an incident transporting her new dog, Maggie. When Wolko had to slam on the breaks to avoid a wreck, the harness Maggie was wearing didn't perform as intended. "She went headfirst into the back of the front passenger seat. It was a horrible situation. I'm grateful she wasn't more seriously injured."

Afterwards, Wolko wanted a dog harness or seatbelt that had been properly crash tested, but she couldn't find one on the market. So she created the Center for Pet Safety to provide pet owners with reliable safety information. Today, CPS performs independent testing and certification to make sure pet safety products perform as advertised.

Pet restraints should pass crash tests for pets, not humans

"A lot of brands make claims of crash protection, or they make claims of crash testing," says Wolko. For instance, many pet products claim to pass Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 213. But there's a problem with that claim, she says. "It's technically impossible for any pet product brand to pass the 213 because that was developed for child seats."

Instead, she encourages consumers to look for products that pass more rigorous testing, specifically for pet products. "We have information on our site for those pet owners that really want to find a crash protection tool," says Wolko. She recommends that concerned drivers consult the list of CPS-certified products on their website.

Unlike other programs, she says, CPS' independent evaluations use sophisticated crash test dog dummies. The crash tests evaluate "excursion," or how far the pet could travel forward in a crash while restrained, much the same way child car seats are tested. They also evaluate if the hardware and construction can take the force of a collision, and if it's effective at keeping pets from moving around in the car.

Picture of different kinds of pet restraints

Acclimation training helps pets get used to safe car restraints

When it comes to actually using pet car safety products, Wolko stresses the importance of car training, especially for crash-rated products that can be more restrictive. "We recommend acclimation training, which is something that most pet owners just completely avoid," she says. "Acclimation training is critically important for proper use and for the pet to become more comfortable in using any travel product. You can't just take a dog and put a harness on them and expect them to travel in a relaxed mode."

Wolko suggests starting small and gradually working your way up to longer journeys. Start with two minutes of travel, work up to five minutes, and repeat. "If you have a panicky pet, put someone next to the pet while the pet is secured in the backseat to calm and reassure them," she says.

Exercising your dog before a car trip is also a good idea. "That way, he's going to be more prone to relax," says Wolko. "Maybe even sleep."

Pet health insurance as a precaution

While pet insurance can't prevent your pet from getting injured in the car, it can protect your pet and your budget if an accident happens. But as with other precautions like using a seatbelt harness, relatively few drivers in our survey (25%) carried a policy. While pet insurance policies offer varying coverage, even the most basic accident-only plans can help pay for vet bills if your pet gets injured in a car crash.

Injury bills can add up quickly for pets if you don't have insurance — Dr. Roth says, "Fractures can be $4,000–5,000." The potential for expensive treatments was the main reason that Sims and his wife got pet insurance for their cat. "We care about him. So, of course, we're going to do what needs to be done. But we want to make sure that doesn't put us in a compromised spot."

Whether or not you have pet insurance, your auto insurance might offer some pet coverage if you're in a car accident. Progressive can pay out a limited amount for your pet's vet bills if you're in a covered accident and have collision coverage. If you have pet coverage via both your auto insurance and your pet insurance, you can make a claim via both policies, but your total payout can't exceed your pet's resulting vet bills.

Preparation is your key to pet car safety

Simple preventative measures like practicing good driving habits and properly restraining your pets can reduce your risk of crashing and the severity of injuries if a crash occurs — but we have to actually use those methods.

Know and follow your area's laws for driving with pets. Start acclimating your cat or dog to the recommended driving practices meant to protect them. Our pets should get comfortable being restrained in the backseat with a harness that's crash-tested specifically for pets. It's what's safest for them, us, and everyone else on the road.

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