Rules of the Road

It’s not safe to keep dogs (or people) in the back of a truck, but is it illegal?

Regardless of whether it’s legal to have a dog (or human) unsecured in a pickup bed, fatality rates double in the back of a truck compared to inside the cab.
Regardless of whether it’s legal to have a dog (or human) unsecured in a pickup bed, fatality rates double in the back of a truck compared to inside the cab. McClatchy file

Question: So many times I see people with dogs in the back of their trucks that are not tied in. I have seen dogs fall out of the back and be seriously injured or killed in the past. What is the law regarding having a dog or dogs, in the back of an open pickup?

Answer: Remember the good old days when you could have your kid on your lap while you drove to town – no seatbelts, no airbags and no problems? This was also the era of putting the kids in the pickup bed while the grownups rode in the cab.

OK, maybe you remember those days as good, but it certainly wasn’t a good approach to driving.

Eventually we couldn’t ignore the data, and we passed laws to fix all that stuff, right?

Well, we started requiring people to use seatbelts; but riding in the back of a truck? That’s still open for debate.

I know this is a question about dogs riding in the back of trucks, but I think it’ll be helpful to also talk about humans because the same law addresses both.

I’d bet that most everyone over 40 can remember either riding in the back of a pickup or at least seeing other people doing it. The same goes for dogs; we used to let our dogs roam free in the truck bed.

Now most people would guess that it’s illegal for people to ride in the back of a truck, and that if you put your dog there, it has to be secured in a crate or harness.

The Revised Code of Washington has a law titled “Carrying persons or animals on outside part of vehicle.” Here’s what it says: It shall be unlawful to transport any living animal on the running board, fenders, hood, or other outside part of the vehicle unless suitable harness, cage or enclosure be provided . . .” It goes on to say the same thing about humans, this time leaving off the part about harnesses and cages.

The question becomes, “Is the pickup bed the outside part of the vehicle?” You might reply that it’s obviously outside the vehicle because when you’re in an open truck bed you’re still, well, outside. I think that’s a reasonable argument.

However, this law has been on the books since 1937 without any changes (except in 1961 when it added a part about allowing people to ride on the outside of a garbage truck when collecting trash).

When I was a kid in the ’70s, we didn’t think we were violating the law by riding or putting a dog in the pickup bed. I presume the generations before me felt the same way. Interestingly, the law hasn’t changed, but our cultural attitudes towards a specific behavior have.

I suspect that some of these cultural changes coincided with seatbelt laws.

Here’s an example to help make my point: If a pickup has a bench seat with three seatbelts and there is a driver up front along with two people in the truck bed, that would violate the law. Not because they’re in the truck bed, but because the law requires all occupants of a vehicle to use a seatbelt. There is a provision that if there are more people than seatbelts the extra people are exempt from wearing a seatbelt.

If in our example we added two more people in the cab, the riders in the back of the truck would now be legal, if we still presume that the truck bed does not constitute the outside of a vehicle.

If there’s no prohibition for humans to ride unsecured in the back of pickups, then there isn’t one for dogs either. The requirement to harness an animal kicks in when the animal is on the outside of a vehicle and we’re still trying to figure out if the bed is considered outside.

To add more clarity, I checked the websites of a couple traffic attorneys. One said that based on the law we’ve been discussing, it’s illegal to ride in the back of a truck; the other said there is no law against it. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety concluded that Washington does not have a law that prohibits riding in a pickup truck bed.

OK, so maybe that’s not the law that prohibits dogs from riding unsecured in truck beds, but what about the law that requires you to secure your load? I suppose you could make that argument, but in reading the full text of that law, it sure doesn’t seem like that’s what it was intended for.

What about the law on transporting or confining an animal in an unsafe manner? Using this law would really be upping the stakes. Violating this law doesn’t just get you a ticket; it results in an arrest and the confiscation of animals.

As much as you might think that’s what a careless dog owner deserves, I don’t think that’s what the writers of this law had in mind. It’s been on the books since at least 1901 and is part of the animal cruelty laws. This law prohibits transport or confinement that will harm the animal.

Putting a dog in a truck bed may harm a dog, but there’s no guarantee that it will. The courts look at the difference between “will” and “may” when determining the law.

My final answer: Regardless of whether it’s legal to have a dog (or human) unsecured in a pickup bed, it’s a bad idea. In a crash, fatality rates for humans double in the back of a truck compared to inside the cab. And I don’t think humanity’s best friend does any better.

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 Ask a question.