Distracted by dogs? Rhode Island may ban pets from drivers’ laps

We know it’s not advisable to drive with the family dog strapped to the top of the car -- just ask Mitt Romney, the Republican front-runner who recently drew the ire of animal lovers for sharing an anecdote about doing so decades ago. But, in Rhode Island at least, it may soon be illegal to drive with a dog on one’s lap.

The state is considering such a ban to crack down on distracted drivers. The Providence Journal reported Monday that Rep. Peter G. Palumbo, a Democrat from Cranston, submitted the bill to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration after a constituent told him of her concerns after seeing a dog in the front seat of another driver’s car at a busy intersection.

The bill proposes an $85 fine for first offenses, a $100 fine for second offenses and a $125 fine for subsequent offenses.


The bill was driven -- not just by the constituent’s concerns -- but by the results of a 2010 survey by AAA. That survey found that an unrestrained dog in one’s lap while driving is far more distracting than most people realize.

According to the survey, 21% of respondents admitted letting a dog sit in their laps while they drove; 7% said they’d given their dog food or water while driving, and 5% had played with the pup while the car moved. Thirty-one percent admitted to being distracted by their dog while driving, no matter where the dog spent the journey.

The online survey was based on answers from 1,000 dog owners who had driven with their dogs in the previous year. Beth Mosher, an AAA spokeswoman, said preventing a dog from running loose in a moving vehicle is better for the dog, as well as humans, in the event of a sudden stop or accident.

Several states have laws requiring that animals traveling in “open” areas of a vehicle, such as the back of a pickup truck (or the roof of the car?) be restrained; but according to, none has laws banning animals from running loose inside a vehicle. That may soon change, based on such things as the AAA study, the concerns of dogless drivers, and cases such as the one in South Dakota in 2010 -- in which a woman was pulled over for having 15 cats loose in her car.

The case made it all the way to the state’s Supreme Court, which ruled against the woman, Patricia Edwards, and concluded that officials were right to stop her and impound the cats because they posed a risk to public safety.

As Chief Justice David Gilbertson wrote at the time: “Because of the cats in the back window, Edwards failed to see the patrol car behind her and nearly backed into it,” Imagine if there had been a child on a bicycle instead of a patrol car there, he said.

Tennessee also is considering a ban on driving with a dog in your lap. And California lawmakers actually passed such a bill into law in 2008, but then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it.

A poll being run by the Providence Journal, however, suggests that Rhode Islanders overwhelmingly support the ban. Of 380 people responding to the online poll, 74.5% favored such a law; 25.5% opposed it.


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