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By Michael Strong

As the head of the U.S. Department of Transportation, Ray LaHood repeatedly stated his goal to reduce distracted driving, such as talking while driving. A new study adds one more to his list of driving no-nos: Pets, particularly for senior drivers.

Researchers at the University of Alabama-Birmingham say that both overall and at-fault crash rates for drivers 70 years of age or older were higher for those whose pet often rode with them.

“This is the first study to evaluate the presence of pets in a vehicle as a potential internal distraction for elderly drivers,” said Gerald McGwin, the study’s co-author and a professor in the Department of Epidemiology.

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The crash risk for drivers who always drove with their pets was double that of drivers who never drove with a pet. Crash rates for those who sometimes or rarely drove with pets were consistent with rates for non-pet owners.

LaHood has good reason to be distressed by distracted driving: It accounts for more than 10 percent of all U.S. highway fatalities, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The administration recently released guidelines to keep driver’s eyes off phones and on the road, and discouraging carmakers from making distracting dashboard gadgets.

The guidelines are to limit how long drivers look away from the road. According to highway safety administration, motorists should not take their eyes off the road for longer than two seconds. A frisky pet, especially one in the front seat, could demand too much attention.

More than half the pet owners said they took their pet with them in the car at least occasionally, usually riding on the front passenger seat or in the back seat.

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“The increased crash rate for elderly drivers who always drive with pets is important in the context of increasing driver awareness about potentially dangerous driving habits.”

The problem with having pets in the car isn’t that they are likely to physically interfere in the operation of the vehicle, but that they are distracting. Currently Hawaii is the only state that bans drivers from having a pet in drivers’ lap. Arizona, Connecticut and Maine have broader laws restricting behavior or activities that could potentially distract a driver; such laws could apply to pets in a vehicle.

The authors suggest that older drivers displayed slower cognitive performance and response times than younger drivers when dealing with “an increased cognitive or physical workload while driving.”

“Adding another distracting element, especially an active, potentially moving animal, provides more opportunity for an older driver to respond to a driving situation in a less than satisfactory way,” McGwin said.

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As part of the study, researchers noted that 83 percent of the participants agreed it was unsafe to allow pets to travel in a vehicle unrestrained, but that only 16 percent attempted to use any type of pet safety restraint in their vehicle.

The study employed 2,000 community-dwelling – people who do not live in assisted living or nursing homes – licensed drivers age 70 and older. There were 691 participants who had pets.