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Dogs in Cars, Getting There Safely

Like any family member, they need to be protected in case of a crash, but also should not distract the driver. Face licking is discouraged.

dog with head out of window

This may look cute, but don’t let your pup do this. It’s not safe. Credit...Jaromir Chalabala/Getty Images


Recent studies have confirmed what many of us already knew: Having a dog in the family is good for your health. Let’s expand that — dogs can make car trips better, too.

This has been clear to me since after college, when I made regular cross-country drives. Without a simple care arrangement for Gus, a German shepherd, I found myself with a co-driver. At first, each time a trip loomed I agonized over what a burden Gus might be, what with the extra stops, the need to carry his food, the challenge of finding dog-friendly motels.

Yet every time, taking Gus worked out to make the trip better. I never left him behind again.

Taking dogs on a car trip is less of a challenge today. Basic guidance, as well as tips on exercise breaks, dealing with motion sickness and other topics, can be found at the websites of AAA and ASPCA, keeping in mind that a dog riding with its head out the window or in the open bed of a pickup risks serious injury.


Get a Dog, Live Longer?

person petting corgi dog

While the safety systems intended to protect humans are regulated by government agencies, there is little in the way of oversight or equivalent requirements for pet restraints. This is not only a shortfall in keeping dogs secure, it also has serious implications for the driver and passengers. In a collision, an unrestrained animal becomes a projectile with the potential to cause enormous harm. The magnitude of the force is a straightforward calculation based on weight, speed and the distance it takes to stop. In a typical 30 mile-an-hour head-on crash, a 50-pound dog flies forward with an impact force of 1,500 pounds.

No surprise, there are many products that promise to keep dogs comfortable and in place. Lindsey Wolko, founder of the nonprofit Center for Pet Safety, a consumer advocacy group, sorts essential safety gear into two categories: distraction prevention, which keeps the dog out of the front seat, and crash protection, designed to provide the best chance to avoid injuries. The center tests and certifies harnesses, carriers and crates.

Wirecutter, the product recommendation site owned by The New York Times Company, has tested and certified recommendations for dog carriersdog harnesses and collarstravel carriers for small dogs and cats, and more. ]

The same principles apply to cats, though there are fewer available choices of strength-tested safety restraints for cats. Many are comfortable when riding in travel carriers; models designed for smaller dogs and properly secured by the car’s seatbelt or a cargo tie-down connected to an appropriate attachment point will do fine. Do not rely on the light-duty elastic netting or plastic hooks intended for holding groceries in place.

An alternate design is the so-called zip line, which is essentially a strap that runs overhead, from side to side, in the back seat. The line is attached to fixed points; typically the passenger grab handles above the doors. A tether from the harness slides freely on the line, much like some dog runs. Again, the intent is to keep the dog out of the front seat and inside the vehicle should a collision occur.

Zip lines, however, do not meet the safety standards of the Center for Pet Safety.

“We believe they need to be removed from the market, as they increase the chance of injury to the pet and to human occupants,” Ms. Wolko said.

So there are important considerations in making any purchase. Look for components that have been strength-tested by an approved laboratory. For example, a conventional walking harness is not tested to the forces exerted in a crash, running the risk that stitching may come apart or the strap connectors may fail. Tethers are tested to assure that the range of movement in a collision — a measurement engineers refer to as excursion — is limited so that the dog does not collide with obstacles in the vehicle that would cause injury.

Testing is a serious business. The Center for Pet Safety uses MGA Research, an independent laboratory that uses test sleds and canine dummies (or in the more polite scientific terminology, replicants). The safety-equipment makers pay for the testing. Evaluations begin with products that are already on the market, and while the center has partnered with Subaru in raising pet-safety awareness, it otherwise gets no input from automakers, Ms. Wolk said.

Another popular product that the Center for Pet Safety does not certify is travel seats — essentially boosters that raise a dog so it can look out the window. Ms. Wolko is concerned about potential ejection of the animal in a crash and the possibility of injuries from glass shards


In the past, a popular choice for owners of sport utility vehicles and station wagons was a partition — usually a metal grate — that confined a dog to the cargo area. That prevents driver distraction, but does little for pet or occupant safety.

A better solution is a carrier or crate for pets, in which they may enjoy greater freedom of movement. Smaller travel carriers are held in place by the seatbelt or supplied anchor straps. In newer cars, the attachment can be made to a connection point provided for child safety seats, known as the LATCH or Isofix anchor.

Carriers of any size should be a strength-tested and certified to maintain structural integrity, with doors that stay shut in the event of an impact. Home or airline crates are not always built to these standards. The tie-down straps and the vehicle attachment points must also be tested to assure that they will perform as claimed.

Buyers should not take a manufacturer’s word that restraint systems and carriers are crash rated. Consumers should verify certification by a third party like the Center for Pet Safety. Certified restraints often carry a price premium, but Ms. Wolko suggested looking at top-level safety gear as investments, noting that joint injuries, such as to the anterior cruciate ligament, known as the A.C.L., will incur high veterinarian bills and a long recovery.

Smarter Driving is a new series all about how to buy, own, drive and maintain your car better. Have something you’d like us to cover? Reach out to Smarter Driving’s editor, James Schembari, at

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