Pets traveling in cars with an older driver can cause crashes (Q&A)

Lori Johnston

Seeing a pet riding in a car with tail wagging and tongue sticking out the window can elicit “awwws” from others on the road. Furry friends, however, can present a distraction to drivers, especially older drivers.

In the first study to analyze pets as a distraction for elderly drivers, University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) researchers found that drivers 70 years and older who always ride with their pets have higher rates of overall crashes. Senior drivers with pets also have higher rates of being at fault in crashes, the study found.older driver

Gerald McGwin, a professor in the Departments of Epidemiology, Ophthalmology and Surgery, is author of the study, which surveyed 2,000 licensed drivers age 70 and older (691 of them had pets). The study didn’t specify what kind of pets people were traveling with, although dogs are most commonly seen in vehicles. Among the study’s findings:

  • The crash risk for drivers who always drove with their pets was double that of drivers who never drove with a pet.
  • More than half the pet owners said they took their pet with them in the car at least occasionally, usually riding on the front passenger seat or in the back seat.

McGwin chatted with CarInsuranceQuotes.com about his study and what drivers should know about the potential for pets to distract them on the roads.

How older drivers can stay safe when driving with pets

Why was it important to study pets in elderly drivers’ vehicles?

You really have to step back and look at it in the context of distracted driving. The reality is that having a pet in a car is like any other distraction, like cellphones. In many states if you’re a new driver, you can’t have other people in the car for the explicit purpose that they’re a potential distraction. And most of the time, the other occupants of the car aren’t sitting on our laps. So there is a difference between a pet and another human occupant in the car with respect to distraction.

In what ways can pets distract and ultimately lead to crashes?

The reality is that if the pet isn’t restrained in the car and the pet has the ability to move around the car then…it’s something in the car that can take your attention away from the road. If the pet reacts to something on the road, that has the potential to take your attention away from the road. You also may interact with (the pet). That is going to take your attention from the road. So it’s not only your reactions toward the pet, but your responses to what the pet is doing in the vehicle at any given time that can be distracting.

Why is driving with a pet such a concern for older drivers?

We know that older adults have higher crash rates than middle-aged drivers. This is potentially attributable to a number of factors. One is reaction time, which when combined with a distraction removes the buffer (older drivers) have between something unexpected happening (such as the driver in front you stopping suddenly) and their ability to react.

Whether it’s a pet or whether it’s talking on the phone, if there’s already an increased risk there with this age group and you add another risk on top of it, those risks may (add up). Other risk factors for crashes among older adults that might play a role are visual impairment (a reduction in vision), cognitive impairment (such as memory, thinking and judgment problems), chronic medical conditions and medications.

You note that Hawaii is the only state that restricts drivers from having a pet in the lap. Should states enact more of these laws?

There is evidence from our study that would support such a law. But (in my opinion) one study isn’t really … always enough to support any sort of legislation like this. But I think definitely driving with pets now is something that people should be concerned about. But they should also be concerned about other types of distractions as well. It’s not just a driving with pets issue.

What are some tips for limiting distractions when a pet is in the car?

My recommendation would be to have the pet as far away from you in the vehicle as possible. It limits the ability for the pet to physically interfere with your driving. (At a minimum, it’s recommended to) take the pet away from the driver’s lap or the driver’s field of vision. You wouldn’t have another person sit on your lap while attempting to operate a vehicle safely.

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