Law Requiring Seat Belts for Animals? New Jersey Gets it Right

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COMMENTARY | New Jersey recently passed a law requiring drivers to secure their pets when they are in the car, preventing the pets from becoming a distraction while driving. Police and animal control officers can stop cars with unrestrained animals and issue tickets for $250-1000.

You may think this so-called animal "click-it-or-ticket" law is the work of a totalitarian nanny state, the sign of a government itching to take away your freedoms, but before you dismiss it completely, let me tell you about Michelle Rogers, who sees it differently.

April 29, 2010, Michelle's father, Geoffrey Reynolds, was driving near his home when a driver, heading the other way, lost control of his vehicle. The then-21-year old other driver had his dog, a Staffordshire terrier, loose in the car. The dog suddenly jumped into his lap, blocked his vision, and caused him to lose control of his car; he hit Reynolds head-on.

Geoffrey Reynolds died of his injuries on May 9, 2010. The driver was charged with negligent homicide with a motor vehicle. The dog was also killed.

Here we have an entirely preventable, entirely foreseeable tragedy. If that dog was restrained, that driver likely would have stayed on his side of the road, reaching his destination safely while Reynolds reached his.

But that is not what happened.

Says Michelle: "Restraining your pet inside a vehicle seems like an obvious decision to me since my dad's fatal car accident involved another driver whose dog jumped in his lap and obstructed his view. The accident would never have happened if the other driver's pet had been restrained."

Even with the pain of losing her father in such an avoidable way, though, Michelle understands how people might see animal restraint laws, and may not think much about the danger of allowing them to roam around a vehicle. She remembers her own family having a dog loose in the car when she was younger, much like people didn't wear seatbelts.

"After many people were injured or killed, the [seatbelt laws] changed," she said. "As a result of the change, fewer people have fatal injuries in automobile accidents."

Michelle is remarkably not bitter about the accident that took her dad's life. "It wasn't malicious. People who have their dogs in the car are generally nice people; people who have dogs are generally nice people. My anger is that the situation occurred, not at the people involved."

That's why Michelle specifically asked that the name of the driver not be mentioned in this article, as she feels he didn't actually mean to harm -- let alone kill -- anyone. While a local website reports the driver was eventually fined $400 for the fatal accident, Michelle could not confirm it.

She pointed out that we have laws against a myriad of things we can control: drinking while driving, or cell phone use. Pets throw another variable into the mix:

"I think pets are different than other distractions because they are unpredictable. Even the best-behaved dogs and cats can be spooked by outside noises or activities."

And just that one moment is all that it takes to end a life.

In the scheme of things, buckling your own seatbelt isn't much of a big deal, and every state except New Hampshire requires it. Why would it be so burdensome to make sure your pet is also wearing his own safety harness? As they're available at pretty reasonable prices at any pet store, it's a small price to pay for the life of your pet, your own life, and possibly the life of a stranger you're passing on the road.

No doubt that that driver wishes things could have gone differently. Michelle and her family certainly do. New Jersey has taken the step to avoid a senseless, purposeless death like Geoffrey Reynolds', a death likely prevented by a simple restraint.

Isn't it time your state did the same?

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