Snoopy may be able to get away with flying his Sopwith Camel without wearing a seat belt, but Snoopy is ... well, we hate to be the ones who break it to you, but Snoopy is not real.
What is real is that hundreds of dogs and cats are injured or even killed each year because their doting owners allowed them the free run of the car or the truck. Even more real is the toll in human life and property damage caused when a boisterous animal distracts a driver, leading to a wreck.
The City Council in Santa Fe, N.M., bewilderingly found itself the focus of national attention last month when news organizations reported that a new law it was considering would require drivers to make sure their pets were confined “in such a way as to prevent the animal from reaching outside the physical perimeter of the vehicle.”
“Bewildering” because such laws, in fact, are quite common, but editors just couldn’t resist the image of Fido’s being ordered to buckle up. The proposal, part of a broad rewriting of the city’s animal-control ordinance that has been under way for almost three years, is to be voted on later this month.
“People have asked for this for years,” said Kate Rindy, executive director of the Santa Fe Animal Shelter and Humane Society, which was involved in shaping the ordinance. “It’s about animal safety and about human safety.”
It’s a serious question, said Rindy, who points out that this part of the ordinance is directed primarily at protecting dogs who ride in the open beds of pickup trucks, where they can easily be thrown to their deaths. In fact, she’s concerned that jokes about the “doggie seat-belt law” could overshadow the larger goal of keeping pets and their owners safe.
“The thrust of this ordinance is really about trying to build in responsibility,” Rindy said. After all, a dog or a cat roaming free can create any number of hazards, not just for itself, but also for its owner and for innocent bystanders.
Horror novelist Stephen King, for example, was nearly killed in June 1999 when he was hit by a van while he was walking near his vacation home in Maine. The driver said he veered onto the shoulder of the road while he was trying to keep his dog from opening a cooler.
If that doesn’t get your attention, consider this: Driving while distracted is illegal virtually everywhere, and you can get pulled over for indulging your cat even if there’s no specific law about pets.
“I've had customers who have been ticketed for not having their restraints,” said Christine Best, president of BestProducts Inc. of Indianapolis and inventor of the FidoRido, a pet booster seat and restraint system she created for her own puppy in 1999.
Best has been developing and marketing the FidoRido for only a couple of years; she received a patent just last July. But several hundred have already been sold, even though she does not advertise beyond her simple Web site.
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How big a problem?
No one really knows how many wrecks are caused by rambunctious pets. AAA estimated last year that they were relatively rare, involving fewer than 1 percent of accidents, but law enforcement and safety experts say these figures are misleading.
Investigations typically categorize the causes of accidents in broad groups; “driver distractions” cause about a quarter of them, the National Safety Council found last year, but such distractions don’t usually get broken down further in the Crashworthiness Data System of the National Accident Sampling System, which generally lumps them together as “Objects Moving in Car.”
British statistics are more complete. A recent survey by the Royal Auto Club found that nearly all drivers who traveled with their pets had been distracted by them at least once, and about 11 percent of those drivers said the distraction almost caused a crash.
No matter how common or rare such accidents may be, however, the results can be catastrophic. Traffic safety data show that a car whose driver is distracted for as little as 3 to 4 seconds can rumble the length of a football field before he or she can recover, and that tiny lapse is all it takes.
Last August, Corey Kruse, 24, was killed when his girlfriend swerved into an SUV as they were were driving to her mother’s home in Marquette, Neb. Police said their Italian greyhound distracted her.
“It’s an issue of animal safety, but I think just as much it’s also an issue of human safety,” said Dr. Merry Crimi, a veterinarian in Milwaukie, Ore., and past president of the American Animal Hospital Association. “People really have to take their own safety seriously, as well as the safety of their pets.”
Experts say there are other reasons not to let your pet run loose in the car.
Unable to brace themselves against swerves and turns, animals can be thrown into dashboards, windows or floors; if you slam on the brakes at 30 mph, your 50-pound dog could be tossed forward with a force equivalent to almost nine 170-pound men, safety researchers calculated.
While such incidents are relatively infrequent, Crimi said, “the injuries are quite serious.” Some veterinarians say they’ve treated cats and dogs who have been flung about so violently that they resemble infants with shaken baby syndrome. Wandering cats are known to get crushed under the accelerator or the brake pedal or to entangle themselves under the seat.
Then there’s “the classic dog-in-the-back-of-the-pickup” scenario, Crimi said. “That shouldn’t happen ever,” she stressed — no matter how happy he may look, your dog is in extreme peril if he’s left to roam around on the open bed of a truck.
Debris flying with the speed of a rocket can kill your dog in an instant. He can become ill from having cold air forced into his lungs. Dust can get in his eyes, which can lead to blindness, or in his windpipe, choking him. (The same goes for dogs who like to stick their heads out the window.)
Even well-meaning owners who tether their dogs are better off leaving them inside the truck. Leave the tie too long and the dog can still fall out and be dragged behind on the road. Leave it too short and he’ll dangle from the side and strangle.
Then there are the hazards that “owners create with their own pets,” said Crimi, who said she had heard reports of dogs and cats who ended up with broken necks, tails and legs because their owners “actually crush their own pets in the door — [they] simply close the door at an inopportune moment.”
Curb your dog
Dozens of companies, including most pet-supply chains, now sell inexpensive harnesses and crates like the FidoRido, in which Fluffy can ride in comfort and safety.
Rindy, the Santa Fe shelter director, said she wasn’t sure most drivers were quite ready to be ordered to lock their pets in — “I think there’s still some grandfathers who won’t strap on a seat belt” themselves, she said. But she thinks it’s not a bad idea, because “animals ought to be safe, as well.”
Crimi also endorsed the idea of pet restraints, if only to eliminate the danger that a driver would be distracted. But while “we have a lot of clients that inquire about those new devices,” she said, “I’m not sure there’s a lot of follow-through. I think people just have a lot of curiosity.”
Without that follow-through, sadly, curiosity alone really can kill the cat.
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