Gridlock Guy: Minimizing dog distractions behind the wheel

I’ve had dogs on my mind quite a bit in the last month. After going more than a decade without a pup, I adopted a year-old stray: a Belgian Malinois mix named Stallz. Accessories Unlimited, a company that does commercial bathrooms, found Stallz and appropriately named him. I minted him with the full name Lord William Byron Stallworth Turnbull III. After a proper greeting, the first thing I did was load my new best bud into my SUV, having no clue how he would react. Fortunately, he was a great passenger on the 20-minute ride back from Stone Mountain to my condo in Chamblee. And Stallz has been a great navigator on our many trips in the last month-plus since.

But every once in a while this high energy dog gets restless and will stand up on the center armrest to jump in the back or nuzzle his head in the cup holders right next to me. Or Stallz will struggle to keep his balance if I make a turn while he is shifting positions. The most distracting thing Stallz does is decide to stand up — and sometimes on the center armrest — while I am trying to check my blind spot.

So all of this got me thinking about if there is a certain protocol or even a law about animal behavior in moving vehicles. I reached out to Governor’s Office of Highway Safety Director Harris Blackwood for insight.

“While we don’t have data on dogs in cars, it is safe to conclude that having a pet on the loose in the front seat can contribute to distraction,” Blackwood said.

I think most would agree that we see dogs riding in front seats all the time and doing so without seat belts. No laws require restraining dogs in the car, but Blackwood said belting in pets is a good idea. “Many pet product manufacturers offer various safety devices for pets in cars. Dogs are also safe in traveling crates, particularly for longer trips.”

This is especially good advice this time of year, as many take longer rides to visit family and friends in the holidays. Chewy.com offers an assortment of affordable pet restraint devices. For as cheap as $10 or $15, dog owners can buy small leashes that either tether to a fastened-in seat belt or that actually have tabs and can click into a seat belt receptacle. These may not keep a dog from stirring around and certainly wouldn't stop them from barking. But dog seat belts limit the perimeter in which a pooch can mull.

On the same Chewy.com search there are dog booster seats, which are padded boxes (without tops, of course), in which smaller dogs can sit.

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These devices help restrain dogs and minimize distractions, but they also keep the hounds safe. In the event of a sudden stop or collision, a loose pet can go flailing and flying and get more seriously hurt than a human. In bigger vehicles, Blackwood offers another option. “Another alternative is to place the pet in the back of an SUV and use the safety netting to keep them from being thrown forward in a crash or sudden stop.”

With all the talk about the Hands-Free Georgia Act this year, many bemoaned the amended law’s scope. They argued that many other actions outside of talking on a phone are distracting. The most common one I got is, “What about eating a cheeseburger and driving?” For some reason, it always had to have cheese. Add a loose dog to that list of extracurricular driving distractions.

But remember that there is another distracted driving law that covers anything that impedes drivers from operating their vehicles correctly. Police can apply that law if they determine an outside factor, like burger-eating, putting on makeup, and taming a hound, caused a crash or another traffic violation.

You’re probably reading this right around Christmas Day, and a new dog might be on your child’s wish list. Take these concerns about distracted driving with dogs into consideration as you start chauffeuring this new member of the family. And if you got a cat, this piece isn’t for you. No one drives around cats and cats couldn’t care less anyway. Merry Christmas.

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Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on News 95-5 FM and AM-750 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@coxinc.com.