CHICAGO – Safety experts have a new pet peeve related to distracted driving.

In addition to texting or talking on a cell phone while driving, lap dogs and other pets left unrestrained inside moving vehicles pose a major distraction that could be deadly, a new study released today warns motorists.

About two-thirds of dog owners surveyed by the AAA organization said they routinely drive while petting or playing with their dogs, sometimes even giving them food or water while maneuvering through traffic.

It has been a common sight for many years to see dogs hanging their heads out of open car windows with their ears flapping in the breeze. But in the cocoon that the automobile has become, more drivers are nonchalantly cradling their dogs atop their laps or perching the animals on their chests with the pet’s front paws clutching the driver’s neck or shoulders.

It’s risky behavior for the driver and dangerous for the pets.

An 80-pound dog unrestrained during a crash at 30 mph exerts 2,400 pounds of force in a vehicle, creating a danger for the dog and anyone in its path, according to Motivation Design LLC, which makes Kurgo pet travel products, including restraint systems.

“As about 40 percent of Americans own dogs. We see this as an increasingly big problem,” said Beth Mosher, spokeswoman for AAA of Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.

Unlike the seat belt law for humans, there are no state laws requiring drivers to buckle up their pets or prohibiting them from holding animals on their laps, officials said. But police can ticket drivers for having an obstructed view of the road or being obstructed from using the steering wheel and other mechanisms in the vehicle.

Most drivers don’t realize that a dog moving around a vehicle or sitting on someone’s lap can injure or kill occupants during a crash, particularly if air bags deploy, said Sgt. Brian Copple of the Illinois State Police.

“If the animal is sitting between the steering wheel and the driver, the air bag will throw the animal back at you with great force,” Copple said. “An air bag is designed to catch a 160-pound person. It’s not meant to protect Fluffy.”

About 6,000 people died in crashes involving a distracted driver in 2008 and more than 500,000 were injured, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said.