Question: Is it illegal to drive with a pet on your lap?
Answer: Maybe I should first ask what kind of pet. Are we talking about a sleeping kitten or a Bernese mountain dog that wants a walk?
Washington doesn’t have a law that specifically prohibits someone from driving with a pet on his or her lap. I thought maybe I could stretch the “embracing another while driving” law to include pets, but it refers specifically to “another person.”
Instead of a pet-specific law, we have a negligent driving law. The negligent driving (second degree) law is the state’s way of saying, “Don’t do dumb stuff while you’re driving.” A person can get a negligent driving ticket by operating a vehicle “in a manner that is both negligent and endangers or is likely to endanger any person or property.”
I know, I know, I used the word “negligent” in my definition of negligent driving. In my defense, so does the legal code, which I quoted. It goes on to provide a definition for “negligent” as it applies to this law. Here’s what it means: If a driver does something that a reasonably careful person wouldn’t do in a similar situation, that’s negligent. Also, if a driver fails to do something that a reasonably careful person would do in a similar situation, that’s negligent.
Back to our question: Would a reasonably careful person (that likes pets) allow a small animal to rest calmly on his or her lap while driving? Maybe (although I haven’t found anyone within the traffic safety community in favor of it). Would a reasonably careful person allow a large, hyperactive dog to bark and move around, blocking vision and causing a distraction? No. Somewhere along that spectrum having a pet on a lap becomes negligent.
But there are two parts to being guilty of negligent driving. Part one is acting in a negligent manner, and part two is having that negligent behavior endanger or likely endanger any person or property. If a pet causes a driver to swerve out of the lane or ignore a stop sign, that’s a good indication of negligent driving that is likely to endanger someone. Note that when it comes to animals, negligent driving isn’t limited to pets on laps. An unrestrained and ill-behaved pet anywhere in the car that takes a driver’s attention away from the primary task could result in negligent driving.
We’ve answered the “Is it legal?” question. But even more importantly, is it wise? I’ll keep going back to the goal of driving: safely getting where we want to go. Anything else we do in the car is secondary.
A study on pet passenger safety found that 3 in 10 drivers with a pet in the car admit to being distracted by the animal. And if you look further into the survey you’ll find that drivers admit to a much higher percentage of potentially distracting behaviors involving their pets. In 2015 distracted driving was a factor in 30 percent of all traffic fatalities in Washington. We need to be paying more attention to the road instead of all the distractions in our car, including pets.
Maybe you can bond with your pet while keeping your eyes on the road and attention on your driving; I’ve met a few small dogs that were so relaxed they would probably calm an anxious driver down by riding on a lap. However, even if you have the mellowest, most well-behaved dog in the county, you can’t guarantee that you won’t be involved in a crash.
What will happen to an unrestrained pet on a driver’s lap in a crash? A lot of the same things that happen to an unrestrained driver. You can take a look at the article on seat belts for a refresher. A spouse of an emergency responder told me her husband has seen the tragic impact an unrestrained occupant has on the other people in the vehicle. An unrestrained person or pet becomes a projectile during a crash. With advance apologies to anyone with a physics background, here’s a simplified way to understand the consequence of unsecured objects in a collision: Take the weight of the object and multiply it by the speed of the vehicle just prior to the crash. A 2-pound dog in a 50 mph crash exerts up to 1,000 pounds of force on impact.
Instead of having a dog on a lap or roaming free in the car, consider using a harness or restraint. It protects the dog and reduces distractions for the driver. Be kind to your pet and drive wise.
Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com. Ask a question.