Temperatures have plummeted, decorations and trees are up and German markets have seemingly appeared across the country overnight. Clear signs that the festive season is most definitely upon us and this means a lot more driving for some of us!

If you’re a dog owner and want to take your faithful companion along during festive visits,  is it safe/legal for you to do so?  Smaller animals tend to be transported in cages but dogs, just like their best friend, are accustomed to having a seat in the car but are you creating unnecessary risk by allowing this?

Having a pet in the vehicle can be a distraction to the best of drivers regardless of its behaviour and their often unpredictable nature can make the chances of committing an offence much higher.

  1. Is it legal to have pets in the car with you?
  2. Is having them unrestrained in a seat creating additional risk?
  3. What offences might you be at risk of committing?

The main relevant issue here is the degree of distraction the dog (or pet) presents and the driver’s response to it. If you’re lucky enough to have a perfectly behaved dog who will sit in the back seat whilst enjoying the scenery then you are less likely to experience problems. If your dog is anything like mine though (not particularly the sharpest tool in the box) then the situation could become more risky.

Example Driving Scenario:

You’re driving along with “Rover” in the back seat. The window is down a little to give the boy some fresh air during the journey and all is well. That is, until your loveable-Labrador spots a cat through the window and immediately tries to chase it down (evidently not deterred by the obstacles in its way- the window being the first). What started out as a peaceful journey to see the in-laws has now escalated to a scene of near-chaos as Rover is barking, throwing slobber all over the seats whilst trying to jump through the 2 cm opening in the window to catch a cat that has probably scarpered by now anyway.

I suspect the most common reaction in this situation is to do some barking of your own and issue firm commands for Rover to settle down whilst doing your best to stay focused on the road; all the while hoping that this is a fleeting episode and not one that will last for the duration of the trip. In the majority of cases, I am sure that it would be just that, a temporary hitch in an otherwise uneventful journey, but there are factors to be aware of that may not be immediately obvious.

It may be tempting to turn and face the dog to better command its attention and control its behaviour but this divides your attention away from the road. The festive season always sees an increase in traffic as we are all trying to adhere to increasingly hectic schedules so taking your eyes off the road is never going to be recommended, even for a moment. Further, driving conditions may be less than ideal. The cold weather is infamous for creating slippery roads and the winter months also means less hours of sunlight.

Reduced visibility and slippery roads are a potentially fatal combination alone so the dangers are only exacerbated with an excitable animal in the car.

Possible Outcomes of Distracted Driving:

Dividing your attention between the road and your dog could result in any number of outcomes:

  1. Increased or reduced speed
  2. Erratic swerving or poor lane discipline
  3. Failing to observe road signs and/or lights
  4. Failing to spot pedestrians, cyclists or motor cyclists
  5. Failing to spot other potential road hazards

Depending on the degree of your distraction, any of the above could result in you  facing charges of speeding, running a red light, failing to adhere to road markings and/or signs, careless driving, dangerous driving or in the most severe cases, death by careless/dangerous driving.

You could slow down too quickly and be hit by someone from behind due to slippery roads affecting stopping distance. You might accidentally hit the accelerator and power straight through a red light. The range of possible outcomes when not focusing on the road is actually quite frightening. We have all heard of tragic accidents over holiday periods so please do your utmost to ensure that you are not involved in one (or worse, the cause).

Penalties for such offences can range from fines, penalty points, disqualifications or imprisonment which is more than enough to ruin an otherwise perfect Christmas.  That list may seem a little over dramatic to some, but each offence is entirely possible when a driver’s attention is diverted from the road.

What is the Best Thing to Do?

I am sure that no dog wants to be burdened with a guilty conscience for causing you to end up in a police station so if your dog decides to get a bit rowdy during a journey, what should you actually do?

The safest way to deal with such a disturbance is by pulling over as soon as you can  to tend to the dog; particularly if you are alone. You should remember to pull over only when it is safe to do so and adhere to the usual precautions (indicating etc). This may sound obvious but it can often be the “usually-routine” precautions that are neglected when you lose concentration.

My Concentration is Unshakeable So My Driving Will Be Fine

Unfortunately, this does not protect you against possible conviction.

Whilst you may be unflappable you must consider other road users and the level of distraction your vehicle/dog may be causing them. Legislation says that if you are driving a vehicle and the standard of your driving falls below what is expected of the ordinary and competent driver then you are guilty of an offence. This also applies to driving a vehicle in a dangerous condition or if your vehicle is in some way causing a distraction or a danger that would be obvious to other drivers to cause a distraction that could be careless or dangerous.

In any situation where there is a question mark over the standard of driving or level of distraction, the best thing to do is consider: “How does this look to the driver behind me?”. If you think another driver could be looking at you and thinking: “What on earth is going on in that car?” , then you should not continue driving until the situation has been resolved as it indicates that the situation is causing a significant level of distraction to other road users and you could find yourself on the wrong side of the law.

How to Avoid Driving Yourself to the Dog-House!

Even for those of you with Crufts rosette winning dogs, you should always plan your journey in advance. Plan your journey and consider the size of your dog and the vehicle to help make sure its comfortable and suitably restrained.

Think about what your pet might need during the journey; food, toys, water, blankets etc to help make the journey more enjoyable.

Ideally,  it is easier if you have someone in the car with you to help help keep the dog calm and its attention occupied, particularly with younger dogs. When the  unpredictable occurs, you can concentrate on driving whilst the second person tends to the dog to limit the disruption as much as possible.

There are no definitive laws that relate specifically to driving with pets however the Highway Code does offer some guidance at Rule 57 which says:

“When in a vehicle make sure dogs or other animals are suitably restrained so they cannot distract you while you are driving or injure you, or themselves, if you stop quickly. A seat belt harness, pet carrier, dog cage or dog guard are ways of restraining animals in cars.”

You should also be mindful of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 which makes pet owners responsible for their safety and there are a range of products available to buy to help safely secure animals within your vehicle. This would also help protect any younger children who are in the back with the dog in the event it gets over excited.

If you have no choice but to take the journey alone, then you could also consider giving the dog something to keep it occupied- its favourite chew toy perhaps? My dog’s favourite toy was a hollow ball that you could fill with dog-treats. The moment he had that in his paws he would be quiet as a mouse and eating his treats in the back of the car without incident.

Another trick is to feed the dog before the journey. Most dogs tend to be ready for a little lie down when they have a full belly so you may find your dog more relaxed in the car after it’s been fed.

If neither of the above options is possible for you then, whilst it is not illegal in itself to drive with a dog in the car you must be extra vigilant at all times and ensure that the dog does not put you in a position where you could end up breaking the law.

Driving Insurance Implications

If you are involved in an accident and the dog is found to have been a contributing factor you could face criminal charges of dangerous or careless driving. If the dog was not secured properly in the vehicle at the time,  insurance companies may invalidate your policy which could also result in an additional charge of driving without insurance which could be seen as an aggravating factor.

If you do find yourself in a spot of bother this festive season then the specialists at Olliers Motor Law will be available to call every day between 8 AM and 10 PM (including Christmas Day) and if you have any tips for dog loving motorists to share then please share them by Tweeting us @TheMotoringLaw

Neil Sargeant, Specialist Motoring Lawyer

Neil is the Head of Motor Law at Olliers Solicitors and has specialised solely in defending road traffic allegations since 2008. You can read more about Neil here.

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