If your dog is your favorite companion when you're out for a drive, you've got plenty of company. A 2011 survey conducted by AAA and Kurgo, a manufacturer of products for pet travel, revealed that more than half of the responding dog owners said they had driven with their pets in the car at least once a month over the previous year.
But taking Fido for a spin can put both you and your pet at risk. Paws to Click, a group that advocates the use of pet safety restraints in cars, says pets in the front seat cause more than 30,000 accidents each year -- and that an accident occurs every 18 minutes because of a loose pet in a vehicle.
The AAA study found that only 16 percent of study respondents use some form of restraint while their dogs are in the vehicle. Fifty-two percent acknowledged petting their dogs while driving, and almost one-fourth (23 percent) said they've used their hands or arms to hold a dog in place when braking. Seventeen percent drive with a dog in their lap or drive holding onto the dog, and another 19 percent have taken their hands away from the wheel to keep a dog from climbing from the back seat to the front.
Other dog-driver interactions include giving food or treats to a dog (13 percent), playing with the dog (4 percent) and taking a photo of the dog (3 percent).
Focusing on your pet while driving is dangerous because looking away from the road for even two seconds doubles your risk of being in a crash, according to AAA. And whether you're traveling with a 5-pound teacup poodle or a 120-pound Great Dane, having an unrestrained dog in your car can be dangerous. A dog flung about in your vehicle is likely to be badly hurt, and your dog may be killed if it's sitting in the front seat when an air bag deploys.
An unrestrained dog also can seriously injure you and your passengers. At 50 mph, a loose dog in a car can exert roughly 500 pounds of force in a crash, according to AAA. At just 30 mph, an 80-pound unrestrained dog will exert roughly 2,400 pounds of force. Your pet could rack up some pretty high vet bills after an accident. Generally, however, auto insurance does not cover pets.
You don't need to deprive your dog of its ride, though. Simply use restraint or harness systems that will keep your pet safely in its seat. You can even get pet seats (similar to children's booster seats) that will allow smaller dogs to keep looking out the window. Check the harness specifications carefully to be sure it's designed to protect dogs within the size and weight range of your pet.
Finally, keep your dog out of the front seat. No matter how much you enjoy your pet's company, you'll both have a better chance of arriving home safely if you keep your hands -- and your attention -- on your driving and not on your pet.