States Hound Dogged Drivers
By Christina Wright, Special to Stateline.org
Cassie, a two-year-old Boston terrier, adores the front seat. She often peers out of the driver's side window of the family car during quick rides to the neighborhood store, her owner said.
"She likes to get a good view," Houston resident Catherine Johnson said. "If it's from my side of the car, than she'll hop right over."
But catching a ride on her owner's lap is a problem for state legislators in some states who are pushing to ban pets from the driver's seat.
While these lap rides haven't yet been outlawed in Texas, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) in late September vetoed such a measure that drew a lot of publicity. The controversial legislation - tagged the "Paris Hilton Bill" for the celebrity who is often spotted with her small dogs - was among 450 other bills that the governor said he couldn't get to and vetoed, as he struggled with a tanking state budget.
Virginia and New Hampshire have wrapped proposed lap-pet bans into driver safety legislation that would prohibit using hand-held cell phones while driving and require using headlights when it's raining.
Other states, including Arizona and Illinois, have covered the issue in more sweeping driver laws that say any driver who is distracted by anything could be ticketed.
New Hampshire, Illinois, Arizona and Virginia state legislatures will consider the bills during their next sessions that begin in January.
State Rep. Richard Drisko (R) of New Hampshire said he added the pet restrictions to a cell phone ban proposal in an effort to help it pass. Eleven previous cell phone restriction bills have been rejected. "I'm not so sure that it may pass, but the past 11 bills didn't have anything other than cell phone issues," he said.
While some cities, including Tulsa, Okla., have local ordinances banning pets from riding on drivers' laps, Drisko said he expects his state's Department of Safety to oppose the bill, because "it's hard to enforce." It's just one more law that officers must look out for and determining a violation is subjective, he said.
Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation in Washington, D.C., said the fact that dogs jump on and off of drivers' laps and small dogs can be hard to spot could make enforcement difficult.
"The police quite frankly have enough much more serious laws to enforce, and to throw a dog enforcement law on them is a reach," said the 30-year police veteran. "Dogs move about. And if it jumps in the driver's lap and he tries to get the dog off of his lap, that may be the distraction that causes the accident."
In Arizona, state Rep. Andy Tobin (R), has proposed that a "distracted driver" be defined as someone "doing any activity that is not related to the operation of the motor vehicle." The law would prohibit using electronic devices, doing personal grooming, eating and handling pets.
New Hampshire already bans drivers from being "distracted." But that law isn't specific enough, Drisko said. "It is a judgment call on the part of the officer or the person making the complaint," he said.
Tori Perry, a case worker with the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said the group commends pet owners who are taking their pets for a spin but urges that it be done correctly.
"Since we do deal much with dogs that are on chains in backyards and left in crates every day, we are excited that some of these pet owners are trying to incorporate them into their lives and they're getting them out of the house," she said. "But, of course, that needs to be done safely."
The animal rights organization suggests buying pet seatbelts for larger animals and pet car seats for the smaller ones.
Johnson in Houston has not bought any such equipment for Cassie. She said her dog doesn't ride along often, but she is not a distraction when she does.
"It's just like anything else while you're driving; you just have to pay attention to where the dog is and, if the driving situation is more intense - with traffic or a lot of turns - you should be able to tell your dog she's got to get out of your way," she said.