Distracted driving is something we usually associate with teens and their cell phones, or frenzied mothers and their minivan full of kids. However the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration defines it as “anything that could potentially remove a driver’s eyes from the road, their hands from the steering wheel or their concentration from the task of driving.”
And that includes pets…
While most states have enacted legislation to curb the use of cell phones while driving, only one – Hawaii – has laws that specifically restrict drivers from having a pet in their lap. But a new study could be about to change all that. The University of Alabama at Birmingham, research enrolled 2,000 drivers age 70 and older, of whom 691 had pets. Participants took a survey on driving habits, and those with pets were asked about the frequency of driving with pets. They also underwent visual sensory and higher-order visual processing testing.
The results showed that senior drivers who take a pet in the car are at increased risk for being involved in a motor vehicle collision. Both overall, and at-fault, crash rates for drivers 70 years or older were higher for those whose pet habitually rode with them.
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.
“That is consistent with previous studies looking at all drivers, which indicate that slightly more than half of all drivers take a pet with them at times,” said Gerald McGwin, PhD, senior author of the study. “And it’s interesting to note that earlier surveys indicate that 83% of those surveyed agreed that an unrestrained dog was likely dangerous in a moving vehicle, yet only 16% have ever used any type of restraint on their own pet.”
The crash risk for drivers who always drove with their pets was double that of drivers who never drove with a pet, while crash rates for those who sometimes or rarely drove with pets were consistent with the rates for non-pet owners.
“This is the first study to evaluate the presence of pets in a vehicle as a potential internal distraction for elderly drivers,” said McGwin. “The increased crash rate for elderly drivers who always drive with pets is important in the context of increasing driver awareness about potentially dangerous driving habits. There is no direct evidence that driving with pets is or is not a threat to public safety, however, indirect evidence exists based on distracted driving research on texting, eating or interacting with electronics or even other passengers and there are certainly anecdotal reports in the news media of crashes and even fatalities caused by drivers distracted by a pet in the vehicle.”
The authors suggest that when confronted with an increased cognitive or physical workload while driving, elderly drivers have exhibited slower cognitive performance and delayed response times in comparison to younger age groups. Adding another distracting element, especially an animal, provides more opportunity for an older driver to respond to a driving situation in a less than satisfactory way.
Given the current debate about all types of distracted driving, further study of pet-related distracted driving behaviors among drivers, is warranted to appropriately inform the need for policy regulation on this issue.
Do you have thoughts on driving with pets? Please let us know.