(MNN.com) -- Most of us will admit to firing off a quick text message or eating while driving. Those momentary distractions are all it takes to cause an accident. But there's an equally distracting problem -- one that comes with four legs and a tail.
My dog Lulu likes to protect her turf, and during car rides, her turf includes any and all sidewalks en route to our destination. The offending presence of our neighbor's orange tabby sends her into a tizzy.
According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), diversions that last more than 2 seconds increase your risk of crashing, so Lulu rides harnessed to the back seat. It's better for Lulu, it's better for me and it's better for that tabby.
While most cats get the crate treatment, dogs typically get to roam, tongues wagging in the breeze. That little bit of freedom comes at a price. In a 2011 survey sponsored by AAA and pet travel gear company Kurgo, 23% of pet owners said that during the past year, they had used their arms to restrain dogs while applying the brakes.
Another 19% took one hand off the wheel to prevent pets from climbing onto the front seat, while 17% admitted to holding dogs in their laps during car rides.
"That's like putting groceries on your lap; you are not going to be able to handle the wheel safely," says Ines de Pablo, an emergency response expert who created a pet safety gear company called Wag'N Enterprises. "When that air bag deploys, the animal will be smashed between the air bag and driver, which won't help the driver."
Although NHTSA does not track the number of pet-related car accidents, 16% of fatal crashes in 2009 involved distracted driving, and about 448,000 passengers were injured. Even if you have the most mild-mannered pooch, it pays to restrain pets during car rides.
Unrestrained animals become projectiles
You know the rule about bodies in motion staying in motion? Traveling at just 30 miles per hour, an unrestrained 10-pound dog will exert roughly 300 pounds of pressure in an accident, according to Jennifer Huebner-Davidson, traffic safety programs manager for AAA. Without a safety restraint, that pint-size pooch can injure other passengers or get hurt on impact.
"A 5-pound dog or 100-pound Great Dane that's not buckled in will become a projectile," says de Pablo, a former EMS technician. "Now, on top of whiplash, you have something hitting you or flying through the windshield."
Pets may pose a threat to first responders
If there is a collision, frightened or injured pets may try to bite anyone who approaches your car. That natural protective instinct could hinder first responders, good Samaritans or police from helping injured people inside the vehicle. If the animal bites, de Pablo says that protocol requires first responders to address their colleagues' injury first.
Also, unrestrained pets may bolt from cars, making a bad situation much worse. Last September in South Carolina, a Maltese-poodle mix named Diddy bolted from his owner's car after she was fatally injured.
Seat belts and air bags are designed to protect people -- not pets
Decades' worth of crash test data and seat-belt refinements help ensure that people have a relatively safe commute. But air bags were not designed to protect pets or any other object moving around in the vehicle. While some states such as California and Florida require pets to be restrained in vehicles, there is very little information to help pet owners select the right gear.
Leashes alone do not provide adequate restraint
Germany requires drivers to restrain pets in vehicles. An organization called ADAC, similar to AAA in the United States, conducted crash tests using crates and harnesses and found that restraining a pet significantly reduces the risk of injury to passengers.
For large dogs, ADAC recommends a crate or carrier in the back of the car, along with a partition to reduce damage to passenger backrests. As for smaller dogs, ADAC recommends harnesses made with large belts, sturdy metal attachments and two tie-ins.
De Pablo's dogs, Mayday and Gypsy, use a harness-style pet restraint that fits snugly and fastens in the back, which causes less pressure on their chests if the car lurches forward. Any harness system should limit the dog's ability to travel in the car.
In case of emergency, it helps to have a plan
All pets should wear collars and identification tags, particularly during car rides. It also helps to keep a list of emergency contacts in the car, just in case you are unable to speak or offer directions regarding care for your pets. De Pablo, who has turned emergency preparedness into an art form, created a Rover Respon'R kit that includes vaccination records, directions for pet care and space to enter your veterinarian's contact info.
"If something happens to me on that trip, who is going to know that I have three pets at home that are going to need care?" she says. "There's no saying how bad my injuries are going to be, how long I will be hospitalized. If [pets] are in the car, what do you want first responders to do? If the animal is injured, who is going to get notified to go to vet center and pay for the animal?"
Forewarned is forearmed.
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