Many dog owners don’t think twice about settling Fido in their lap for a drive to the store, or rolling down the windows so Rover can feel the breeze in his ears.

But a bill pending in the Maine Legislature would require dog owners to restrain dogs inside a moving vehicle and keep them out of the way of the driver.

The bill, An Act Concerning the Transporting of Dogs in Passenger Vehicles, is sponsored by Rep. Jim Handy, D-Lewiston. In an interview Monday, Handy said he submitted the bill at the request of a constituent worried about the safety of unrestrained animals in vehicles.

“I think it is worthy of discussion, certainly. I don’t know if I support it or not,” Handy said. “I have a dog, I think the approach is laudable. I have heard from people who are for and against it.”

Maine’s current motor-vehicle law regarding dogs only applies to open-top vehicles such as pickup trucks and convertibles. Drivers cannot transport a dog in the open portion of the vehicle unless it is prevented from falling, jumping or being thrown from the vehicle, according to state law.

Handy’s bill proposes a much stricter set of requirements for dogs in cars.

The measure would require dogs to be harnessed or tethered in a vehicle, and would prohibit dogs from riding in the front seat between the driver and steering wheel, or riding in the front between a passenger and the dashboard. It also would require drivers to prevent dogs from putting their heads out the window while a vehicle is in motion. The proposed rules would not apply to on-duty law enforcement canines.

Handy said he doesn’t restrain his dog in the car, and lets the animal hang his head out the window.

“My dog loves doing that,” he said. Handy expects a debate on the bill during a March 17 public hearing in the Legislature’s transportation committee.

“We will get both sides of it. We will see if the committee has any inclination to pass it on to the full House,” Handy said.

Groups like the American Veterinary Medical Association recommend restraining dogs in moving vehicles with a harness or carrier. Holding a dog in your lap when driving can interfere with the operation of the vehicle, distract the driver and cause injury to the animal in the case of a crash. Allowing dogs to hang their heads outside the vehicle also can increase the risk of injury from airborne objects or the chances the dog will fall or jump out of the car.

In a Consumer Reports article on traveling safely with pets, it notes that a 60-pound dog traveling at 35 mph can become the equivalent of a 2,700-pound projectile in an accident.

In a 2010 survey, AAA and Kurgo, a pet travel product manufacturer, found that only 16 percent of respondents used a pet restraint in the car, although 83 percent acknowledged it can be dangerous to have an unrestrained dog in a moving vehicle. Many drivers admitted to being distracted by their pets: 52 percent have pet their dogs, 23 percent have used their hands or arms to hold the dog in place while applying the brakes, 17 percent have allowed their dog to sit in their lap, and 13 percent have given food or treats to dogs.

Other states have considered tightening safety rules about dogs in moving vehicles. Hawaii has a law that explicitly prohibits drivers from riding with pets in their laps, and New Jersey can fine drivers $250-$1,000 for improperly transporting an animal, which includes having an unrestrained dog in the vehicle, or allowing a dog to hang out a car window or travel in the bed of a pickup truck.

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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