Road Rules: When can pets become a distraction while driving?

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Q: Distracted driving is easy to pin on phone usage, but what about little dogs on drivers’ laps? I’ve seen so many situations that can be very dangerous due to dogs between the driver and the steering wheel or hanging out the driver’s window.

A: First the good news: At any given moment, most drivers (about 93 percent in Washington) are not distracted. Right now you’re saying, “Wait a second, there’s no way that’s true.” I know you’re saying that because that, or some variation of it, is what people usually say to me when I share that data.

We humans are kind of hard-wired with what the psychologists call positive-negative asymmetry. In this context, it means we’re more likely to notice and remember negative behavior (like driving distracted) than positive behavior. When a driver pays attention and drives the speed limit there isn’t much to see, so we notice the problem drivers and start to think they’re the majority.

But it’s not just a psychological mind trick. In 2019 Washington state conducted a distracted driving observation study. It’s pretty much what it sounds like. Observers surveyed drivers at various locations throughout the state and noted the kinds of distractions, if any, the drivers engaged in. The results? Just under 7 percent of drivers engaged in various forms of distraction.

Seven percent might seem like a small number, but it’s the consequences that really matter. In the same year as the study, distraction contributed to 126 traffic fatalities (24 percent of all traffic fatalities). It’s a relatively low-frequency behavior that contributes to disproportionately large number of serious crashes. I’ll also note that while 126 deaths are far too many, it’s the lowest number of fatal crashes involving distracted driving in the last decade.

When those observers conducted their study they sorted their observations of distraction into three categories: Having a phone up to the ear, holding and manipulating a phone, and other distractions. The “other” category wasn’t sorted into subcategories, but did include pets.

Statewide results show 3.2 percent of drivers holding a phone, 1.4 percent with a phone up to their ear and 2.2 percent distracted by something else, for a total of 6.8 percent. While phones aren’t the only distraction, they make up over two-thirds of distracted drivers. That seems like a good justification for why we have one distracted driving law specific to electronic devices and one for other distractions, called  “dangerously distracted driving.”

With that as a background, let’s talk about dogs. “Dangerously distracted” means any activity not related to driving that interferes with safe driving. Clearly, trying to steer while a pet has its paws through the steering wheel, making a turn while dog with its head out the window blocks your view or even diverting your attention to a barking dog all interfere with safe driving. I haven’t seen a study that can confirm whether pets are a greater distraction than phones, but this shouldn’t be a discussion about which one is less bad. Any kind of distraction puts other road users at risk. A pedestrian shouldn’t have to suffer the consequences of a driver who loves their pet so much they just can’t bear to put them in their own seat.

Which brings up one more point: The driver’s lap is about the worst place for a pet in a crash. Putting your dog between your body and an airbag that deploys in 60 milliseconds, well, I’m not going to describe it. I love snuggly pets, but while driving they deserve their own seat, preferably harnessed. It’ll protect the dog and decrease distractions for the driver. Win-win.

Doug Dahl is a manager with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, Region 11 and publishes TheWiseDrive.com.

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