A bichon frise enjoys the scenery while looking out a car window (kosziv/iStock)

A Maine lawmaker recently proposed a bill that would require dogs to be harnessed or tethered in moving vehicles.

In other words: No more dogs joyously hanging out the window, jowls and ears flapping in the breeze. No more small pooches perched on drivers’ laps like mini co-pilots.

If comments on local news stories about the idea are any guide, this proposal did not go over particularly well.

“My dog’s going to be so pissed when he finds out,” Andrew Hesselbart wrote on the Facebook page of the Portland Press Herald. “Stop trying to control everyone,” wrote Jeremy Collison. “Opioids destroying lives across the state and these people are wasting time on legislation like this?” Robert Alan Parry asked.

On Wednesday, one day after the newspaper’s story on the bill ran, state Rep. Jim Handy (D) withdrew the bill he had sponsored, which was soberly titled “An Act Concerning the Transporting of Dogs in Passenger Vehicles.” In a statement, Handy said the constituent who had suggested it had changed his mind.

Handy, for his part, seemed pretty lukewarm on the idea from the start. He told New England Cable News that he wanted pets to “have the freedom to stick their head out of the window,” and that his own dog “loves the fresh air coming into his face.”

“As a dog owner myself, I had reservations about whether that’s a good idea from the beginning, but it’s my job as a legislator to hear and represent the concerns of my constituents,” Handy said in his statement on withdrawing the bill.


(Martinan/iStock)

Had it progressed, the measure would have made Maine a pioneer in pet seat-belt legislation. Some states have laws that restrict unsecured dogs in open pickup truck beds, and others allow police to charge dog-holding drivers under distracted driving laws. Only Hawaii explicitly prohibits driving with a dog on your lap and letting an animal roam loose in a vehicle.

New Jersey has a law restricting the “improper transport” of animals, and in 2012, a state-sponsored event about pet safety in vehicles seemed to suggest that authorities would be keeping an eye out for dogs hanging out windows — and ticketing their owners.

“You wouldn’t put your child in the car unrestrained so you shouldn’t put your pet in the car unrestrained either. What people come to realize only too late is that animals act like flying missiles in an impact and cannot only hurt themselves but hurt their human family members too,” Col. Frank Rizzo, superintendent of the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which co-sponsored the event, said at the time. “A dog traveling on a driver’s lap is bad, but so are dogs hanging their heads out of windows, birds traveling on a driver’s shoulder or cats resting on a dashboard.”

Cats resting on a dashboard?

Matt Stanton, a spokesman for the NJSPCA, said in an email Friday that the 2012 event “spiraled out of control in the media and caused a great deal of confusion.” The intent was to highlight pet safety in vehicles, he said, but at no point were the organization’s 50 or so law enforcement officers patrolling for violations of the law, which he added was aimed at overloaded livestock carriers.

In the summer, officers do patrol the Jersey Shore for dogs locked in hot cars, and if they see a loose dog in the back of a pickup or on a driver’s lap, they“educate them about the dangers,” Stanton said.

“We are not running around giving tickets” for dogs without seat belts, he said.

But let’s say all this has made you wonder how to travel with your pooch safely. What’s the best way?

Unfortunately, there’s no great answer. Two-thirds of respondents to a 2011 survey by AAA and Kurgo, a pet travel products company, said they’d engaged in distracting behavior — including petting, feeding and playing — while driving with their dogs. AAA recommends restraining dogs in the back seat, where air bags can’t harm them. So does the American Veterinary Medical Association.

And there are plenty of strappy doggy seat belts on the market. But tests of harnesses by the Center for Pet Safety and Subaru resulted in only one being crash-test certified by the center; similarly, just one brand’s pet travel carriers, which can be strapped to car seats, earned certification. A pilot study of special pet seats, which are kind of like kids’ car seats, concluded that they “may offer distraction prevention, but it will likely not offer crash protection.”

One thing’s for sure: For now, no one in Maine — or pretty much any other state — will be required to buy these products.

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