Dogs and Travel: What’s in Your Car?

You wouldn’t dream of driving without making sure your kids are safely buckled up, or strapped into their car seats. You probably buckle up yourself – it is the law, after all. But what about your dog?

According to the US Census Bureau, there were 10,800,000 motor vehicle accidents reported in 2009. “A dog is just as vulnerable to injury in a collision as we are,” says Dr. Debbie Mandell of Penn Vet’s Ryan Hospital and a pet expert for the American Red Cross. One of the worst cases she’s seen involved a collie that was thrown forward from the backseat and sustained a broken back. “I always advocate some sort of restraint for a dog travelling in a car,” she says. And just like a small child, a dog riding in the front seat can be injured, even fatally, by an airbag deployed in a crash.

There are other powerful reasons for restraining your dog. A 60-pound dog traveling at 35 miles an hour can become a 2,700-pound projectile in an accident. Imagine that hitting the back of your head.

An unrestrained dog can even cause an accident. A friend tells of her German Shepherd playfully putting his paw on the steering wheel, causing her car to crash into a tree. A news report described a fatal crash in which one of the drivers was distracted when his dog jumped into his lap.

Frightened by the trauma of a crash, dogs have been known to jump out of a car and run away, or be struck by another car on the road. If the dog doesn’t leave the vehicle, it could hinder rescuers.

Finally, states and municipalities have been enacting ordinances requiring restraints for dogs in cars, with fines of up to $1,000, and, in some cases, prosecution.

What are your options?

Crates are a common choice. Barriers that confine the dog to the cargo area, seatbelt harnesses, and travel carriers are also available. There are pros and cons to all of them. Unfortunately, such agencies as the US Department of Transportation, the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, AKC, ASPCA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show inconsistent data on the safety of these options. Until better studies are available, choose the solution that best serves both you and your dog.

The crate

A crate will prevent driver distraction and may keep the dog safely inside the vehicle. It might also prevent injury to other occupants in a crash if it is properly secured, and the impact is minimal. Ditto a plastic kennel. But there is little information on the crash-worthiness of most crates. An Internet search will turn up lots of amateur videos showing the relative safety of a variety of crating systems, but painfully little data to support claims.

The Variocage crate, by Mim Construction AB, is constructed of steel and equipped with an escape door, and is perhaps the only safety-tested crate available. However, test results appear to be inconsistent, and the crate is very expensive.

For use with a crate on a seat, PetBuckle® markets a crash-tested kennel restraint system. The crate sits lengthwise on the seat and is secured by two straps, distributing the pressure force in the event of a collision.

Crates should always be secured. Bungee straps, though popular, are susceptible to stretching and breaking. A ratcheting system coupled with high strength straps is the most reliable.

Custom crates are frequently seen in the rear areas of open vehicles at dog trials. Considerations should include durability of materials, ease of access from more than one side, and ability of the crate to be safely secured.

Putting up barriers

Another popular option, particularly with SUVs and station wagons, is a barrier placed between the cargo area and the back seat. This gives the dog some room to move around; it also means the dog could be tossed about in an accident. Metal barriers may keep driver and passengers from being hit by the dog, but mesh barriers will unlikely have the strength to keep the dog contained. And if the vehicle’s rear windows are broken in the crash, the dog has an easy access to escape. Another caution: barriers must be correctly and securely installed to be safe and effective.

Belting them in

When it comes to securing your dog in the car, there are many versions of pet harnesses to choose from. Made of a variety of synthetic fabrics, the harnesses clip to seatbelts or provide a loop through which the seatbelt can pass before being fastened. Some can be attached to the vehicle using the anchor points used to secure child safety seats.

When choosing a harness, consider fit and strength of materials. Ideally, it should attach to the buckle part of the seat belt apparatus, rather than the belt itself.

Boosters for small dogs

A small dog booster or car seat may prevent the dog from wandering around the car, but not much more. When used in conjunction with a harness and secured properly, it may prevent the dog from being hurled forward in a collision. The same guidelines that apply to harnesses for larger dogs will apply to those for small dog booster seats. But no matter which one you choose, the dog is still in danger of injury or death when an airbag is deployed.

The last word

Restraining your dog when traveling will make your ride, your passengers’ rides, the dog’s ride, and even the rides of others on the road safer. However, the choice for making car travel safe for your dog is not an easy one. Once you’ve decided on your method of restraint, look for the product that best fits your needs. Durable materials are a must, as well as a system that will not give way in a collision. Contact the manufacturer of a product you are considering to ask if they have done any crash testing. If so, ask where you can read about it.

Dogs are such an important part of all of our lives. By all means, bring them along, but make sure they are safe on the way.

Mention auto safety and cars, and everyone has a story.
Here are just a few:

  • A dog sitting on the front passenger seat was thrown into the dashboard, sustaining a fatal head injury.
  • A collie riding in the back seat was thrown over the front seat when the car was involved in a collision, breaking the dog’s back.
  • Three dogs and their owner were uninjured in a collision on a highway, although the dogs were able to exit the auto. The owner took off after them. Two of the dogs and, sadly, the woman, were then hit by other vehicles and killed.
  • A Labrador lying on the back seat was thrown forward when the car he was in rear-ended another. Damage was negligible; insurance information wasn’t even exchanged. The dog’s injuries, however, were fatal.

Sally Silverman is a long-time instructor at Y2K9s, and a freelance writer

Thank you to Clean Run for allowing the use of this article, originally printed in their June, 2012 edition.

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