Pet Seat Belts – Where it’s the Law and Why it Makes Sense

Pet Seat Belts

Image Credit: Jernej Furman

It’s one of those reflex actions you don’t think about much.

You get in the car and reach for the seat belt – most times before even starting the engine. And if there’s a kid or two in tow? They’re buckled in snug and tight before you even leave the driveway. It is the law, after all.

But what about your pet? It seems like the most natural thing in the world, especially with dogs, to have your pup jump in and share the ride with you. And let’s be honest, it makes you smile when you see a car with its windows down and a dog’s face in the wind. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Potentially, quite a bit from both a legal and safety perspective for both the passengers and the pet.

Click-it or Ticket – A State Issue

It’s easy to understand why most people think there are no guardrails governing pet restraint during road transportation. The fact is that there is no federal law exists that specifically outlines what is legal and what isn’t when a companion animal shares a vehicle’s passenger compartment. While the federal Animal Welfare Act, first passed in 1966 and amended eight times since then, does place restrictions around the transport of very specific animals used in special circumstances, it is not a broad animal protection law.

Instead, the responsibility of animal protection is assumed at the state level. The good news is that each and every state has legislation to protect animals. The bad news is that these laws can vary wildly from one state to another. Additionally, many state statutes allow individual cities or towns to enact their own animal protection ordinances.

What does this mean?                                                      

Both pet owners and professional pet transporters alike need to do a little research regarding animal protection, most typically referenced as animal restraint, when traveling across town, across the state, or across the country with a furry friend riding shotgun. Those who don’t do their homework could face steep fines, damages not covered by insurance, and in some cases, even criminal charges.

States with Existing Pet Restraint Laws

Pets in Passenger Compartments

Acknowledging many pet protection laws can be complex and multi-layered, let’s start with the one that isn’t. Currently, one state – New Jersey has a law that flat-out stipulates pets must be restrained while in the passenger compartment of a moving vehicle. Rhode Island’s laws come close to meeting the same standard, but with one caveat.

Specifically, in New Jersey, a pet must be in a carrier or wear a seat belt when a vehicle is moving. Period. The fine for not complying can reach $1,000.

Rhode Island mandates that an animal in a vehicle passenger compartment must be placed in a carrier, cage, or secured with a seat belt unless it is under the physical control of someone in the car other than the driver. It’s not a straight-up restraint law, but it might as well be since the police officer pulling you over is who determines if the animal was being controlled or not. The cost for not adhering to the law can reach $200.

Pets in Open Truck Beds

When it comes to animals in an open truck bed, primarily dogs, a number of states have laws stating they must be tethered or restrained in a cage or crate. Failure to do so will result in fines. These states include:

  •     California
  •     Connecticut
  •     Maine
  •     Massachusetts
  •     Minnesota
  •     New Hampshire
  •     Oregon

At first glance, the fact that a limited number of states have such laws on the books might suggest that enforcing pet restraint isn’t a priority. The truth is, similar legislation is gaining traction in an increasing number of states across the U.S.

A Push for More State Laws

What’s the big deal?

Simple physics explains why the trend toward pet restraint is gaining steam. Imagine this scenario. Your small fur ball is curled up on your lap. Cute, right? But, it only takes a second for something to go very wrong with this picture. An unrestrained 10 lb. dog involved in an accident at just 30 mph will exert roughly 300 lbs. force – more than enough to inflict serious harm on itself or a passenger. This reality and the awareness of it will surely fuel additional states adopting specific pet restraint laws in the near future.

Also growing in popularity is legislation that limits pet transportation to the back seat of the vehicle for the same reasons small children are placed there. Airbags. Restrained or not, an airbag deploying at 200 mph, can deliver devastating injuries to any animal that is impacted.

Factoring in Distracted Driver Violations

Now let’s talk about the states where an unrestrained pet can get you in hot water, even when there isn’t a specific law about it in force. This is the realm of states with distracted driver legislation.

In ten states, driving with a pet on your lap puts you at risk of being charged with distracted driving. Some states mention animals in laps specifically in their distracted legislation, such as Hawaii. Others reference anything that interferes with maintaining control of the vehicle or obstructs view – both of which are distinct possibilities from a lap-riding animal. Distracted driving states include:

  •     Arizona
  •     Arkansas
  •     Connecticut
  •     Hawaii
  •     Iowa
  •     Maine
  •     Massachusetts
  •     South Carolina
  •     Virginia
  •     Wisconsin

The consequences of violating distracted driver laws vary from state to state. In some states, a pet on a lap is reason enough to justify a traffic stop. Other states view distracted driving as a secondary offense, one that is attached to a primary offense, such as speeding. The bottom line is all can result in tickets and fines.

An Additional Policy to Consider – Insurance

Certainly, a distracted driving ticket for an unrestrained pet is costly, and an injured pet as the result of a distracted driver accident is awful beyond measure. But there’s one more thing to think about if you’re in an accident with an unrestrained animal in the passenger compartment. Some insurance companies will not cover the cost of the incident if it was the result of distracted driving. Suffice it to say, the emotional and monetary cost may be substantial.

Anti-Cruelty Laws May Also Have Impact

We’re not done yet. Pet restraint regulations get even murkier because 6 states have animal anti-cruelty laws that can be applied to unsecured pets in moving vehicles. In general, laws in these states consider it illegal to transport animals in a cruel manner or in a way that puts an animal in danger.

The catch is that there are no hard and fast rules or specific definitions of what constitutes “transporting in a cruel manner”. It is up to the discretion of the legal authority pulling a driver over to determine what constitutes an offense and what does not. The states where this ambiguous application exists include:

  •     Alabama
  •     Arkansas
  •     Massachusetts
  •     Maryland
  •     Mississippi
  •     Nevada
  •     North Carolina
  •     Ohio
  •     Oklahoma
  •     Tennessee
  •     Texas
  •     Utah
  •     Vermont
  •     Virginia
  •     Washington
  •     Wisconsin

Again, the consequences of violating anti-cruelty laws in these states vary. Fines are a given. More important, you need to understand that breaking animal anti-cruelty laws can carry misdemeanor, or in extreme cases, felony charges. 

Beyond the Law: The Case for Pet Restraints

Without question, widespread adoption of pet restraint laws has a long way to go. But as previously mentioned, the movement does have considerable momentum and new, more comprehensive legislation is definitely on the horizon. This makes it a good idea for pet owners and pet transporters to investigate the rules of the road periodically in the cities and states they travel through.

Or maybe there’s an easier solution. Many pet owners and professional pet transporters already understand the benefits of pet seat belts and have taken the law into their own hands – choosing to use restraints, even when they are not required. This is especially the case as information linked to potential injuries from unsecured pets, airbag dangers, and insurance denials become more widely known.

That’s because most people consider pets furry family members – precious cargo whether in an owner’s vehicle or a transporter’s care. And when all is said and done, it comes down to being a matter of love, not of law.

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