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RICHMOND--Most of us have, on some occasion, looked over at the car next to us and seen a dog in the driver's lap, tail wagging or head hanging out of the window happily.
When Del. Bobby Mathieson spots that, he sees a safety hazard.
Mathieson, a freshman Democratic delegate from Virginia Beach, has introduced a bill to bar drivers from driving with an animal in their lap, or allowing an animal in the car to block their view.
Mathieson, a retired police officer, said he has heard anecdotal evidence of dogs in laps being such a distraction to the driver that they've caused accidents, although he never worked such an accident during his career.
"It's an absolute driver distraction," Mathieson said. "Just like a cell phone."
Mathieson said there aren't any statistics on accidents caused by drivers being distracted by dogs, and there isn't a box on police accident reports to specify that a dog on the driver's lap caused the accident. Some have said animal distractions would fall under reckless driving, if an accident resulted, but Mathieson said he thinks it needs to be specifically spelled out in the code.
His bill doesn't outline how a driver would keep a dog off his or her lap while driving, and it doesn't require that animals in cars be restrained in any way.
Mathieson said, however, that his bill would help protect the animals as well as the drivers.
"It's animal friendly because it keeps the dog safe and the cat safe," he said.
Mathieson's bill has been sent to the House Transportation Committee, and has not been heard there yet.
Driving with a pet in your lap is a distraction, said Debra Joseph, executive director of the Greater Fredericksburg Area SPCA. "I kind of equate it to talking on a cell phone or putting on makeup. You' re not paying full attention," Joseph said.
Dogs and cats who are normally calm in a vehicle can react to outside objects, Joseph said, creating a safety hazard.
"Certain animals will react to either noises or they're looking out the window and they see another dog or squirrel," she said. "We occasionally hear stories like that, so again, that certainly can be a safety factor."
If there is a crash, a pet riding unrestrained in a driver's lap could be ejected, Joseph said.
AAA Mid-Atlanticspokeswoman Martha Meade called the bill "common sense" legislation. AAA has supported legislation that limits distracted driving, including a bill that would ban text messaging behind the wheel.
"It definitely is a different type of distraction, but anything that keeps your attention off the road is serious," Meade said.
Jack Hammett, a veterinarian with the Animal Clinic of Caroline, said pet injuries sustained in car crashes are rare. Still, if pets are not properly transported, there can be risks for everyone on the road, he said.
A dog riding in a driver's lap can accidently shift a car's gears while the car is in motion--something that has happened to clients, Hammett said.
Or, an unrestrained cat could end up in a driver's foot well.
"The human tendency is to not want to hurt the cat," Hammett said. But that means a driver may not brake as hard as they should in an emergency, he said, creating the potential for a crash.
Hammett strongly supports traveling with pets, though. They are pack animals, he said, and they enjoy following their pack leaders.
"I'm all for pets going with their owners," he said.
Hammett transports his dog in his back seat, and has trained him to stay there.
"I take my dog everywhere," he said.
Pet owners can also purchase safety harnesses that attach to a vehicle's seat belts, he said.Chelyen Davis: 804/782-9362
Going on a road trip with a pet? The Humane Society of the United States shares pet travel tips on its Web site, hsus.org.
Dogs who enjoy traveling do not need to be confined
Most cats are not comfortable traveling in a car, so for your safety and theirs, it is best to keep them in a carrier. Restrain the carrier so it does not bounce around inside the car, harming the animal inside.
It is a good idea to travel with your pet in the back seat of the car. A front-seat passenger-side airbag can deploy in a crash, harming your pet.
Never transport a pet in the back of an open pickup truck.
Dogs and cats should be kept safely inside the car. Pets who are allowed to stick their heads out the window can be injured by particles of debris or become ill from having cold air forced into their lungs.
Never leave your pet unattended in a parked car. On warm days, the temperature