A new comment by John, who saw this post recently, refers to a harness that has been crash test certified. Thanks, John, for getting in touch about that.
I poked around the web, as I had been hearing inklings, and here is what I found.
At about the same time I was posting this original opinion piece Canine Friendly was coming out with a crash test certified car harness. Their certification is for crash tests done with an 85 lbs dog and a vehicle traveling at 35mph.
The harness is called a Safety Harness and you can find information on the testing, specifics, and where to purchase on their website. Thanks, John, for drawing this to my attention.
I'll do some more digging and will update with any further advancements in this area of pet safety, and I'll be upgrading my car harnesses as well!
There had been an accident.
A well known agility competitor had rolled her vehicle on the way home from a competition.
No human lives were lost, but just the same, not everyone survived.
As this news hit home, overflowing email inboxes and plastered on the walls of our social networking sites, we started to wonder: What if it happened to mine?
We’ve all done it. We’ve all traveled with un-restrained and un-protected animals in our cars. We’ve all driven home tired after a long trip or a late night with friends. We’ve all driven distracted by phones, radios, children in the back seats and by our dogs.
The reality is that it can happen to anyone. It can happen on the long haul back from the summer cabin, or it can happen in the 10 minutes it takes you to drive to the grocery store or the dog park.
Our dogs fill important spaces in our lives. They are our friends, companions, confidants, we say they are like family. So why is it that when we load them into the car and buckle our own seat belts we don’t give a second thought about buckling theirs?
For today’s post, as you pack up your dogs and head out to your favourite summer vacation spot I’d like to talk to you about buckling up for your dog. It could save both your lives.
This past year Alberta introduced a new distracted driving law. It limits the use of cell phones, ipods, certain foods, and other potential distractions for the driver of a vehicle. What some people don’t know is that un-restrained pets fall under the category of distractions in this law if police deem the pet to be blocking sight lines, occupying the front seat in such as way as to interfere with the driver, or are just plain old being distracting.
Pets are not allowed to interfere with the driver. That means Fido can’t ride on your lap and Rover needs to keep his bum in the back instead of climbing all over the centre console. If your dog is a distraction as perceived by an officer of the law you will be pulled over and you will be ticketed. Unrestrained pets can cause car accidents.
Some of us are blessed with great car companions. They willingly hop into the car and lay down in their designated spot and they don’t budge for the entire ride. They don’t distract the driver, they don’t climb or stick their heads out the window, and they don’t stomp on passengers. They stay put, right where you left them, until you hit the brakes that is.
I myself have been forced to slam on the brakes for a number of reasons, deer in the road, cut off by another driver, there are plenty if situations where sudden braking is the only choice at the time. I’ve felt my polite, mild mannered, furry passengers slam into the back of my seat, and I’ve turned around to offer an apology as my wide eyed charges pick themselves up off the floor.
Now, imagine what happens if instead of slamming the brakes on while traveling 60km per hour you strike another vehicle, a barrier, or a tree traveling at 110km per hour on the highway. During a collision at just 60 km per hour a dog will be thrown from the back seat with a force of approximately 20 times his body weight. That means my little 35lbs border collie could go flying into the windshield with a force of 700 lbs. This is enough force to kill the driver or any passengers in the front seat if the dog strikes them on the way through the wind shield.
Restraining your dog will not only help save their life. It could save yours.
If you have been in an accident you dog will be scared and possibly injured. Scared or injured dogs may bite or threaten emergency responders. These people are here to help you and your dog, but they can’t if your dog won’t let them. Our dogs are our protectors. Sometimes they try to protect us from the wrong people. If your dog is properly restrained emergency responders can help you, your passengers, and your pets.
Dogs are my business, so this post is mostly focused on dogs and dog safety in the car, but I have seen cats, birds, and other pets traveling un-restrained in cars as well so we will include them all in this section.
A properly restrained dog is protected from injury or death. Remember that mental picture of that dog flying off the seat when you hit the brakes? Not only can an unrestrained animal strike and injure passengers, but they themselves can be severely hurt or killed as they travel through windshields or are tossed out of side windows as a vehicle rolls. For the same reason we buckle kids in to car seats, we need to buckle our pets into our vehicles.
We talked about how scared they’ll be. A scared dog will often panic and run from the crash site. They may become lost, or worse they may be struck by other vehicles on the road or cause other car accidents. Two of the agility trainer's dogs above fled the crash scene. One was recovered alive the next day, the other was found dead having been hit by a car.
Even if you don’t get into an accident, a simple restraint system in the car can help ensure your dog doesn’t escape by mistake at a rest stop. Finding a dog in a familiar neighbourhood is hard enough, searching for one in an unfamiliar vacation spot is much worse.
There may not be one right way to restrain a dog in the car, but a huge part of that is because no governing body has come up with a set of standard guidelines or a guarantee of what is safest. Adult seat belts meet strict regulations, as do air bags and child car seats. There are not currently any regulations for dog restraint systems. All I can do here is give you the information I have, encourage you to seek out your own, and make the most informed decision for yourself and your beloved pet. If you have managed to stay with this post for this long, your dog thanks you.
I’m going to start with crumple zones because I was dismayed to realize the danger I was putting my dogs in traveling with them the way I was. The problem was, I was treating my dogs like cargo, not like the live passengers they are. I was traveling with my dogs tucked neatly away in the crumple zone of my station wagon.
The crumple zone exists primarily in two places on vehicles, in the very front and in the very rear of the car. Crumple zones are designed to collapse on impact in order to absorb the force of a collision. Imagine the difference between hitting a wooden crate verses hitting an empty card board box. The crate hurts a lot more because it is hard and stops your hand short, sending vibrations of force up your arm. The cardboard box, on the other hand, just sort of collapses under your hand and any force you put into the hit is completely absorbed, no vibrations, no discomfort, no injury. Your crumple zones are supposed to be the cardboard box. Now, using that same idea, you put something very breakable into the crate. Because the crate is solid the items inside are protected from the impact of your hand because it fails to collapse. If you put the same fragile item in the cardboard box and give it a good box collapsing whack, you’re going to obliterate anything inside that cardboard box.
Passenger areas are solid crates contained inside cardboard boxes. They provide the rigid protection of the hard container shielded by the force absorbing cushion of the collapsing exterior. Anything outside the passenger area is in the cardboard box, or the crumple zone. The crumple zone sacrifices it’s contents to protect the contents of the passenger zone. Crumple zones are for cargo only. Live animals are not cargo. Live animals traveling in the crumple zone will be crushed on impact.
All vehicles have front crumple zones, but that is where your engine is so no one will be riding there anyway. The rear crumple zones vary depending on the vehicle type. In small cars the crumple zone is in the trunk. In hatchbacks, station wagons, suvs, and minivans the crumple zones are behind the last row of passenger seats. In pickup trucks crumple zones are in the truck bed. Your vehicle manufacturer should be able to tell you exactly where your vehicle’s crumple zones are. In vehicles where these seats can be removed or tucked into the floor you need to be aware of where they are when they are in place and keep your dog restrained in the passenger areas, the places where seats are or would be, not in the cargo areas. If a person can’t ride there (legally) then neither should your pet.
Air bags are designed to protect front passengers from impact with the dashboard or steering wheel. There are a few caveats to airbags. 1. They aren’t pillows. They inflate with significant, painful, speed and force. 2. You must wear a seatbelt for your airbag to help you. 3. Being very short, lightweight, or too close to your airbag can cause severe injury or death.
It’s number 3 that we need to worry about for our dogs. Even if your dog is belted to cover caveat number 2, your dog is not designed to use an airbag. When a dog sits their bum is at the back of their seat, but their head is significantly forward of that position. This means that even if your dog meets minimum weight requirements to use an airbag, they do not meet the distance from the dashboard requirements. This means that in the case of an accident your dog will hit a partially inflated airbag. Hitting a partially inflated airbag IS worse than not having an airbag at all. A partially inflated airbag can kill your dog on impact.
The front seat isn’t safe for your dog. But if you have no choice but to put them in the front seat, belt them in securely (we’ll talk about seat belts farther down) and DISABLE your passenger airbag.
Because we all now know not to travel with our pets in the crumple zone of our car we’re only going to discuss the kind of barriers designed to go between the front seats and the passenger seats. There are multiple barrier systems on the market to prevent your dog from climbing into the front seats. They range from fabric mesh screens, wire barriers, and pretty tough looking metal bar barriers. Solid barriers like the wire or bar barriers are usually held in place with pressure at the ceiling and floor level and are adjustable with knobs or bolts. The soft mesh barriers are usually attached with velco, double sized tape, or elastic straps.
While both, depending on how desperate your pet is, prevent the dog from climbing forward and causing an accident that’s about as far as their use seems to go. Crash tests that include pet and cargo barriers have shown that in severe accidents the force of the items striking these barriers dislodges them from their place and they simply turn into yet another projectile in the vehicle. Pet barriers prevent driver distraction, but they won’t contain your pet in an accident. The video linked at the end of this post shows how little force is needed for the pet barrier to be dislodged.
I would like to note that some manufacturers do sell pet barriers specifically made for their vehicles. I have found no information on the effectiveness of these barriers or their attachment points in the event of a crash. Contact your individual vehicle’s manufacturer for crash test information on vehicle specific barriers. All that I know about my vehicle’s optional pet barriers is that they are designed to contain my pet in the crumple zone, so I have not purchased one.
Despite all the conveniences though, there are problems. The frames wear out fast, specifically the plastic parts that hold the metal parts together when in use. The zippers go next. I didn’t even have to pause to think for a second that this crate would be useless in an accident. It would be crushed, and if that didn’t injure my dog, he would escape through the popped zippers and be gone.
I also had once incident with my soft sided crate where it was just too light weight. I took a hard corner in my station wagon and the crate, with my poor dog inside, did a barrel roll.
The disadvantage in a car accident is how these crates come apart if enough force is applied. These crates are soldered together. Under heavy force either from being crushed from the outside, or from the impact of the dog inside, these joints pop. Because of the way the crates are built, when they pop, the wires project inwards. Dogs who have been in wire crates during accidents have suffered puncture wounds from the wires. I have not heard directly of any dogs who have been fatally injured by these wires, but the potential is there for punctured eyes and impalements. It’s luck of the draw as to how badly the wires will hurt the dog inside.
The other problem is, that in the case of an accident, if these crates aren’t tied down they themselves become heavy projectiles. Tying them down, however, will increase the forces on the wires and we come right back to that problem with the sharp wires entering the dog’s space.
come in a variety of styles, designs, and brands. The vast majority of them consist of three pieces, a top, a bottom, and a door. The Ruff Tough kennel is designed in two pieces, with just the crate body and door. Some screw or bolt together, others are held together with plastic clips.
From what I can find, these are some of the better choices for car travel with your dog, but as with everything we’ve looked at so far there are also downsides.
First, in order to prevent this type of crate from becoming a projectile it must be tied down. Tying down these crates presents a new danger. This crash test video shows a small crate, tied down to the back passenger seat, being cut open on impact by the seat belt. The crash test dummy exits the shattered crate and flies around the car. The problem was, that while the crate didn’t move, the animal inside it did. Remember that 20 times their body weight force we talked about earlier? The side of the crate wasn’t made to withstand that force.
Yet another concern is that crash testing found that crate doors had the tendency to pop off the crates when the somewhat flexible plastic moved on impact and ejected the solid metal door from the frame. This brings us back to the problem of the dog escaping and running away from the accident.
Both these situations are found in the longer test video at the end of the post.
All that said, this would be my personal second choice of a restraint system for my dogs. Here is what I would suggest to help make it as safe as possible:
1) Do not use crates in the crumple zone. Remove or stow your rear passenger seats to accommodate larger crates in safe zones in your vehicle.
2) Tie your crates down. Bolt tie downs into the frame of the car. Do not use bungee cords. Choose wide straps and use more than one. The idea is to distribute the forces on the crate as evenly and over as great an area as possible. One strap creates a pressure point that will rip the crate apart, but several straps distribute that same force over a greater area and could potentially hold that crate together.
3) If you want bedding in your crate use light weight crate pads instead of blankets. Blankets may become dangerous if they twist or tangle during an accident.
Seat Belts and Harnesses
Finding a harness was tricky though! They are available just about everywhere, it seems and in every price range. I found harnesses for as little as $12 and for as much as $70. They came with all kinds of accessories too like seat belt clips, running lines, extensions, doggy car seat adapters.
They also all came with flashy promises to protect my pet in case of sudden stops (but not collisions?) or with claims that they were crash tested to child car seat standards.
So here is what I found out about dog car harnesses and what I think you need to know.
Not all harnesses have been tested to withstand the massive force a dog puts on the harness in the case of an accident. A harness designed for walking your pet on leash will prevent them from climbing around the car and being a distraction, but in the case of an accident the harness will snap and your dog will once again become a projectile.
Just because a harness has been crash tested doesn't mean that all the accessories that go with it have. It also doesn't mean that it has been crash tested for dogs of all sizes. I contacted a company that was advertising two things. The first claim they made was that their harnesses were crash tested to child safety seat standards. Child safety seat standards are for children under 30lbs. Both my dogs are 35lbs. In the theoretical crash we've been talking about throughout this post my dogs would exceed the force that these harnesses were tested to by 100lbs. The second things they were advertising were a number of accessories that can be used with the harness. These included an extension to allow the dog more freedom to move around the back seat, and a booster seat that the harness could be attached to for small dogs. When I asked the company representative if any of these accessories had been crash tested in use with the harness, their answer was no. (Thanks for being honest, guys). So if you have doubts, ask questions. Companies should be willing to share crash test results with consumers.
The video at the end of this post shows a harness that stays together during an accident, but an extension line that snaps.
Size matters. If a company offers multiple sizes make sure you get the right size for your dog's weight and make sure that they tested all sizes at their advertised weights.
Seat belts don't guarantee there will be no injuries. Just like human seat belts, dog seat belts aren't a bullet proof (or crash proof) way of preventing injury. The point of wearing a seat belt is to reduce the severity of injuries that are received and to prevent death that would other wise occur in the absence of a seat belt.
As promised, here is the video that shows the failure of the cargo barrier, the un-rated harness, and the improperly secured crates.
The harness I chose personally has not been vehicle crash tested. I could not find a vehicle crash tested harness that assured me it could handle the weight of my dogs. The harness I chose was instead put through a stress test to see how it held up to sudden snapping forces. Having viewed the results of this test I made my own informed decision.
That's all I'm asking every one of you to do. Take the information presented here, compare it to information presented elsewhere, and make the best informed decision for you and your pet possible. I am hoping that down the road I'll be able to update this topic with new and wonderful standards for dog vehicle safety, but until then we'll all just have to try our best.
To Sum Up
- Never travel with an unrestrained pet and ensure your method of restraint will be functional in case of a crash
- Never transport your pet in a seat with a functioning airbag. Keep pets in the backseat or disable the passenger airbag
- Never transport pets in the crumple zone of your vehicle
Buckle up and drive safe everyone!
Upcoming topics in our Summer Road Trip series:
Beating the Heat: Tips and tricks to help keep your dog cool on a hot holiday
Manners Matter: Behaving yourselves when you stay at hotels with your pets
Be Prepared: What happens if you become seriously ill or injured while traveling with your pet?