Phone calls and texting aren't the only activities distracting drivers these days.
A new survey found that man's furry best friends -- who are frequent travel companions in their owners' vehicles -- are also causing drivers to take their eyes off the road.
Thirty-one percent of the 1,000 dog owners surveyed by the American Automobile Association (AAA) and Kurgo products acknowledged being distracted by their pets while driving.
And a whopping 59 percent said they've participated in at least one "distracting behavior" while driving with their canine companions, including:
• Allowing their dogs to sit on their laps (21 percent);
• Giving food and water to their dogs (seven percent);
• Playing with their dogs (five percent)
Safety experts say these types of behaviors increase drivers' risks of crashing. Drivers who take their eyes off the road for just two seconds double their risks of becoming involved in a crash, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
The AAA/Kurgo study found another worrisome trend among the dog owners surveyed in the online study.
Eighty percent said they take their dogs with them on errands, going to the park, or on road trips, but only 17 percent acknowledged using any type of pet restraints.
Unrestrained pets in a vehicle can become dangerous projectiles in an accident, safety experts say.
"An unrestrained 10-pound dog in a crash at 50 mph will exert roughly 500 pounds of pressure, while an unrestrained 80-pound dog in a crash at only 30 mph will exert 2,400 pounds of pressure," said Jennifer Huebner-Davidson, AAA National, traffic safety programs manager. "Imagine the devastation that can cause to your pet and anyone in the vehicle in its path. Restraining your pet when driving can not only help protect your pet, but you and other passengers in your vehicle as well."
First responders and pet safety experts who have studied this issue for years say there are other risks associated with unrestrained dogs involved in car accidents.
Linda D'Orsi, captain of the Chula Vista, California, fire department, has seen unrestrained dogs bolt from accident scenes when emergency crews arrive.
One wreck clearly comes to mind.
"There was a woman who got in a traffic accident and was going to be taken away in an ambulance," D'Orsi told ConsumerAffairs.com during a 2008 interview. "She had a dog (unrestrained) in the car with her, and that dog got out and was running in the road. He was spooked and we could not coax him back. It ran away from us.
"That would have been a good time to have that dog in a crate or restrained," added D'Orsi, who is certified through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as a handler for urban search and rescue dogs.
The veteran fire captain has also seen unrestrained dogs survive car accidents, but then die when they flee from the scene and dart into traffic.
"There was a dog handler who was in a freeway accident and she and her dog survived the accident," D'Orsi said. "But the dog was not crated and got out of the car. And he was killed."
The founder of the California-based Bark Buckle Up said unrestrained dogs involved in car accidents can also pose a threat to emergency workers.
Some dogs, for example, may try to protect their owners and not allow paramedics to treat the injured driver or passengers. Frightened dogs may even attack first responders, said the pet safety organization's Christina Selter.
In those cases, emergency workers are often forced to put the dogs down so they can save the injured person's life.
"This is so hard for first responders," Selter said. "They love animals. But if a car is on fire and the dog is hovering over its owner, they may not have a choice."
Selter has spent the past several years educating pet owners about the importance of keeping their dogs and cats restrained in vehicles. She's well aware of the distractions -- and safety problems -- caused by dogs and cats that travel unrestrained in cars, trucks, and SUVs.
And while she appreciates the attention the AAA/Kurgo study has generated about this issue, Selter said the survey's findings are flawed.
The study, for example, said 31 percent of drivers acknowledged being distracted by their dogs when driving. "That's not an accurate number," Selter told us. "The number (nationwide) is extremely higher."
Selter also questioned the methodology AAA/Kurgo used to reach its findings.
"You have to look at how their study is worded," she said. "They said 31 percent of the people in their survey 'admitted' they were distracted. When we do these studies, we record the actual distractions -- not people just admitting to being distracted.
"When you gather these types of statistics, you have to observe and record what people do and don't do," Selter added. "It's nice that they talked to pet people in their study, but these aren't real statistics."
What about the number of drivers who don't restrain their dogs in a vehicle?
The AAA/Kurgo study found only 17 percent of dog owners used any type of pet restraints. That means 83 percent don't retrain their pets in a vehicle. Selter said that figure is off, too.
"We've found that 90 percent of drivers who have pet in the car with them do not restrain them properly or (restrain them) at all," she said, adding her organization works with police chiefs and law enforcement agencies nationwide to collect its statistical data.
And remember the figures AAA used to describe the force exerted by an unrestrained dog involved in a car accident? How an unrestrained 80-pound dog in a crash at only 30 mph will exert 2,400 pounds of pressure?
Selter said those numbers aren't accurate either.
"AAA hasn't done any crash testing," she said. "We've done this since 2007 using approved methods. And we've found that a 60-pound dog, child, or even suitcase in crash going 35 mph becomes a 2,700-pound projectile. Basically, the object morphs into the size of a baby elephant."
The nationally-recognized "pet safety lady" also called AAA's survey "biased" because the organization teamed up with Kurgo -- a Massachusetts-based company that sells pet restraints.
"They would have been better off partnering with a shelter or rescue group," she said. "But this study is only a public relations move by AAA."
Something good, however, has come from the survey, Selter said. "At least more people are now aware of issue."
Pet owners can find more information about securing their dogs and cats in a vehicle -- and other pet safety travel tips -- on Bark Buckle Up's Web site.
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