Safety experts have a new pet peeve related to distracted driving.
In addition to texting or talking on a cell phone while driving, lap dogs and other pets left unrestrained inside moving vehicles pose a major distraction that could be deadly, a study released Wednesday warns motorists.
About two-thirds of dog owners surveyed by the American Automobile Association said they routinely drive while petting or playing with their dogs, sometimes even giving them food or water while maneuvering through traffic.
It's risky behavior for the driver and dangerous for the pets, too.
An 80-pound dog unrestrained during a crash at 30 mph exerts 2,400 pounds of force in a vehicle, creating a danger for the dog and anyone in its path, according to Motivation Design LLC, a company that manufactures pet travel products, including restraint systems for pets, under the brand name Kurgo.
"As about 40 percent of Americans own dogs, we see this as an increasingly big problem," said Beth Mosher, spokeswoman for AAA of Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.
And while 80 percent of poll respondents said they take their dogs on a variety of car trips, only 17 percent said they use a pet-restraint system to limit distractions and protect their pet. Such safeguards include harnesses, backseat barriers and special portable seats designed for animals.
Dogs inside wrecked vehicles often become territorial and protective of their owners when police and emergency-responders try to rescue injured occupants, sometimes leaving authorities no other option than to shoot the animal in order to help the driver and passengers, say troopers who have been dispatched to such accident scenes.
Most drivers don't realize that a dog moving around a vehicle or sitting on someone's lap can injure or kill occupants during a crash, particularly if air bags deploy, said Sgt. Brian Copple, Illinois State Police safety education unit manager.
"If the animal is sitting between the steering wheel and the driver, the air bag will throw the animal back at you with great force," Copple said.
"An air bag is designed to catch a 160-pound person. It's not meant to protect Fluffy."