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August 1, 2010

News & Features

If we love our pets so much, why don't we buckle them up?

Special to NWautos

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(Sean O'Connor)

Dogs are people, too -- according to some people. But when it comes time to hit the road, we hardly treat them with the care we give our children or take for ourselves.

Whether it's my dog Bailey -- a four-legged source of unconditional love one day, a shedding, smelly source of astronomical vet bills the next -- or my neighbor's precious Fifi -- who enjoys a raw-food diet, acupuncture and a lavender-filled bed -- most dogs get pretty much the same treatment once in the car.

We toss 'em into the back seat and then we get behind the wheel, buckle ourselves up and drive away. With one slam of the car door, Bailey, Fifi and 80 percent of all dogs go from being prized and pampered members of the family to potentially lethal projectiles.

A 60-pound dog in a 35-mph car accident will hit an object in front of them -- such as a windshield or your head -- at a force of 2,700 pounds per inch. Ouch.

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Shots from the author's series of dogs in cars. (Sean O'Connor)

According to a recent AAA study, a pet moving around in a car is the third-worst in-car distraction. (I'm guessing a pet talking on a cellphone ranks even higher.) I have a friend who lets her wiener dog sit on her lap in the car, which is like using your dog for an airbag.

But hey, I'm not preaching. I put Bailey in harm's way all the time. I let her stick her head out the window, because seeing her face in the wind makes me happy.

I even spent a year taking photos of dogs' heads hanging out of car windows, ears flapping, snouts aloft. They look like they're having such fun, noble canine navigators sniffing the wind for clues of oncoming adventures. To take that away is, perhaps, to deny ourselves a vicarious thrill, a nod to the notion that we secretly might like to hand over the keys and trade places.

My friend Sally chalks up our collective apathy to cultural conditioning. Just as Hollywood glamorized cigarettes with bigger-than-life stars lighting up, it also glamorizes the freedom of an untethered pooch.

As Sally says: "Think about it. If Lassie had been wearing a seat belt, he couldn't have jumped heroically from the family wagon and little Timmy would still be trapped at the bottom of a well!" Good point.

Some states have laws that require dogs to be tethered in the beds of pickup trucks, but there's nothing so far for interiors of cars. An organization called Bark Buckle UP is working nationally to educate the public about the many potential dangers of unrestrained pets riding in cars. It's a sort of Click It or Ticket campaign for dog owners.

Maybe it's like bike helmets. Growing up, bike helmets were for goofballs. Now, if you don't wear one, you're the goofball.

Maybe we need a public-service ad campaign like the ones that used to promote seat-belt use for humans. Maybe we are so oblivious to the potential dangers that we need to see crash-test doggies hurtling over seats and into windshields before we're convinced that a harness is the way to go.

It may just be a matter of time, awareness and legislation before we start buckling up the barking set. As an incentive, I'd like to suggest that any new legislation allow harnessed dogs to be counted in our HOV access. Why not? Dogs are people, too. Sort of.

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