How to Keep Your Dog Safe in the Car

Depending on the type of harness, your dog should at least still be able to lie down and stand in the car. Mary Jo DiLonardo

You jump in the car, whistle for your dog and head off on an adventure. Of course you buckle up, but do you make sure your furry best friend is securely fastened before you back out of the driveway? Most people don't.

No one would let a child bounce around the backseat, but many pet owners let dogs (and cats) have free rein in the car. They hang their heads out the window, climb up on the dashboard and vault over the seats. The dangers are obvious. First, a loose pet can be incredibly distracting.

A 2011 survey by AAA and Kurgo, a manufacturer of pet travel products, found when we have pets in the car, we tend to do things that keep our eyes off the road. For example, almost one in five (19 percent) say they've used their hands or arms to keep their dog from climbing into the front seat, taking at least one hand off the steering wheel. More than half (52 percent) have petted their dog while driving and nearly one-quarter say they've had to use their arms or hands to hold their dog when hitting the breaks.

And those few moments of distraction can really matter. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that looking away from the road for only two seconds doubles your risk of being in a crash.

If you are in a crash, not only can your pet be seriously injured, he can also seriously injure anyone riding in the car. If an accident happens while a car is moving at 35 mph, an unrestrained, 60-pound dog is capable of causing an impact of up to 2,700 pounds, says Christine Selter, founder of Bark Buckle Up, a pet travel safety site.

The safest choices

If you decide to restrain your dog, you can choose between harnesses, crates and carriers, and barriers. Unlike car seats for infants and children, there's no set of government or industry safety standards for pet restraints, says Lindsey A. Wolko, founder of the Center for Pet Safety, a consumer advocacy and research organization. Products aren't necessarily crash-tested, so you may have no idea how safe your pet would be in the event of an accident.

However, the Center for Pet Safety (CPS) performed crash tests on harnesses, crates and carriers. The results of the crash tests, later reported by Consumer Reports, were eye-opening, says Wolko. "Some products beheaded our test dogs or were just blown wide apart."

Here's a video of one of those harness tests:

Only one harness passed that first crash test: the Sleepypod Clickit Utility. Since then, the only harness that has received a five-star rating from CPS is Sleepypod's next-generation harness, the Clickit Sport.

CPS also tested crates and carriers. The top-rated crate, Gunner Kennels' G1 Intermediate, comes with a hefty near-$500 price tag. A few crates and carriers passed the tests, but many plastic and wire crates did not. They often collapsed or burst open, doing serious damage to the crash-test doggies inside.

Although other items may not be as safe, they can still, however, help ease distractions. If your pet is confined, she can't hop back and forth between the front and back seats and can't jump in your lap while you're driving.

If you put up a baby gate or barrier that just stays in place with a tension lock, remember that in a crash, they can become projectiles too, Wolko points out.

Getting your dog used to the idea

If you decide to use a restraint and your dog has always had the run of the car, he may not like the idea of suddenly being strapped in. Don't just wrestle him into his new harness and hit the road.

It's all about baby steps, says pet safety consultant Melanie Monteiro of The Safe Dog, who works with Sleepypod.

If your pet is already used to harnesses (or being dressed in outfits!), make sure the car harness fits properly and then do fun things once they have it on.

"Take them for a walk, give them snacks, feed them dinner," Monteiro suggests. "Get them used to wearing it like it's no big deal and they don't associate it right away to get buckled in to the car."

If the whole harness experience is new, then let your dog smell it, put a treat on it, and let him hear the snap of the buckles. Take the process very slowly. Do the same thing if you're using a crate or carrier in the car for the first time.

"The first trip should be short and fun, not a trip to the vet," Monteiro says. "It's a new thing and they're suddenly restrained. I would keep it short and happy."

It might be the law

dogs on driver's lap
Dogs on your lap can be considered 'distracted driving' in some states. rpavich/flickr

Not only is it safer to buckle up or crate your pet in the car, but in some states, it's also the law. New Jersey has probably the strictest ordinance in the country. New Jersey SPCA agents can pull over drivers who they believe are driving with an unrestrained animal. Fines can range from $250 to $1,000 for each offense, and the driver can be charged under the state's animal cruelty laws.

In Hawaii, you can be fined $97 for driving with a dog in your lap and $57 if an animal is loose in a moving vehicle. In Arizona, Connecticut and Maine, drivers can be charged with distracted driving if they have pets on their laps, according to USA Today.

And, remember, if you decide you're not going to buckle up your pup, then at least keep him out of the front seat because of the airbag.