N.J. bill would restrain pets in cars

Enjoying the wind in his face, Scooter Robertson, a miniature poodle from Hurffville, is securely harnessed.
Enjoying the wind in his face, Scooter Robertson, a miniature poodle from Hurffville, is securely harnessed. (   ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 29, 2012

It's a common sight, and not just in the dog days of summer: the pooch with its head stuck out of a car window, ears flapping in the wind.

But those free-spirited rides could be history if a controversial new bill gains traction among New Jersey lawmakers.

The measure would require motorists to harness non-crated pets - or face a $20 ticket and a possible charge of animal cruelty that carries a civil penalty of up to $1,000.

The proposal has drawn both support and ridicule.

Some critics have called the bill's sponsor, Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer (D., Essex), and literally barked over the phone.

"A dog lying on the backseat of a car or sticking his head out the window shouldn't be an offense," says Assemblyman Jay Webber (R., Morris), who thinks an animal cruelty charge would be barking up the wrong tree. "We've gotten along just fine for the past 100 years."

Spencer, who has a Teacup Pomeranian named AJ, isn't without sympathy for canine passengers.

"It's iconic . . . dogs getting a breath of fresh air and drooling down the side of the car," she acknowledged.

"But something needs to be done about restraining [pets] so they don't create distractions that could impact other motorists or pedestrians."

Some owners dislike the possible harness rule.

"People should use their own judgment," said Rysheeda Smith, 31, who was at a Mount Laurel pet store last week with five-month-old Coco, a miniature Doberman pinscher who rides in her lap.

"How many accidents do dogs cause?" asked the Burlington Township resident. "Not many."

Others approve, though they envision problems keeping the pets compliant and finding restraint systems tailored to their animals.

"They could get out, especially big dogs," said Kaitlin Phillips, 19, a Tabernacle resident whose puppy Bailey, a pug-bulldog mix, often rides unconfined.

"But it could be a good safety message. If a dog is jumping around, it can be a distraction. I had to pull over today to calm Bailey."

The impetus for Spencer's bill came in part from students at a Newark charter school in 2009, she said.

"They were concerned about dogs not being restrained in the car and gave me their version of what a bill should look like," she said.

"My concern was renewed when I was at a vet's office and heard the story of a dog sliding off the front seat of car and breaking a leg."

In a sudden stop, unprotected pets can become projectiles. They may be hurled forward or be ejected, she said.

Three dogs were thrown from vehicles in accidents on the Garden State Parkway in April and May, shortly before a news conference with the state Motor Vehicle Administration and New Jersey SPCA, officials said. The Bergen County event was held to encourage motorists to restrain pets.

"You wouldn't put your child in the car unrestrained, so you shouldn't put your pet in the car unrestrained either," said Col. Frank Rizzo, superintendent of the SPCA.

"Of course, a dog traveling on a driver's lap is bad," he said. "But so are dogs hanging their heads out of windows, birds traveling on a driver's shoulder, or cats resting on a dashboard."

In New Jersey and Pennsylvania, SPCA officers can pull over drivers for improperly transporting animals. Violators may be charged with a summary offense.

Pets so often travel in their owners' laps, or in front seats, that some businesses with drive-up service - such as TD Bank - provide treats to furry visitors.

In a 2010 AAA survey, 20 percent of motorists said they rode with their dogs on their laps. Thirty-one percent admitted that they had been distracted by pooches, no matter where they were in the car.

More than 5,400 Americans a year die in accidents caused by distracted driving, according to Raymond Martinez, chief administrator of the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission. Statistics are not available on how many incidents involved animals.

At their May news conference, officials warned that a driver who ignores state law involving cruel and inhumane transport of animals may be fined and charged as a disorderly person. But the statute is vague about what is cruel and inhumane.

A shop in Morris County used the opportunity to market - with a discount coupon - a variety of pet restraints, car harnesses, and seat belts.

Believing the SPCA and MVA's "cruel and inhumane" interpretation was off-base, Webber offered legislation intended to clarify the law.

His bill, sponsored June 28, stipulates that a driver's failure to restrain a domestic animal does not constitute cruel and inhumane transport.

"Drivers would still be subject to a citation for distracted driving," Webber said. "If an animal is distracting a motorist, that's a hazard."

A month later, Spencer introduced her bill calling for tickets for not restraining pets and civil penalties for animal cruelty.

The dueling measures have been referred to committee and may be taken up in the fall. There are no Senate versions of the bills.

"I hope we can get some clarification," Webber said. "Pet owners are confused and somewhat outraged.

"We don't want to go too far. Leave it to the common sense of drivers and pet owners."

A few states have passed legislation requiring animals to be harnessed, but the laws mostly apply to those riding in the exterior of a vehicle, such as the bed of a pickup.

In Arizona, Connecticut, and Maine, distracted-driving laws can be used to charge drivers with pets on their laps. Hawaii specifically forbids drivers from holding a pet on their lap.

"This is an emerging issue," said Heather Hunter, a AAA spokeswoman in Orlando, Fla. "We don't have research gathered on all the laws nationally."

"Some states use distracted or reckless driving laws to ticket people," she said. "We recommend that motorists restrain their pets."

The SPCAs in New Jersey and Pennsylvania don't have the staff to issue more than a few summons each year.

"We think it's a good idea that people should restrain their animal in some way if they're driving," said Wendy Marano, a spokeswoman for the SPCA in Pennsylvania, where no similar harness legislation is being considered. "An animal could jump out of a window or could go flying if there's an accident."

But driving "with a dog sticking his head out the window is not animal cruelty," said Matt Stanton, Marano's New Jersey counterpart.

"Having a shih tzu in the lap while driving could be a problem. Is it animal cruelty? That's a stretch."

Legislation isn't necessary, he said: "We just need public awareness."

Spencer and Webber, who are lawyers, say they hope the debate will highlight the dangers to motorist and pet.

"There may be a middle ground," Webber said.

Contact Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.


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