A new study has found that there is an increased risk for car crash for senior drivers who regularly take a pet in the car. The study, which was performed by researchers at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, found that the crash risk for drivers who always drove with their pets was twice as high as that of drivers who never drove with a pet. Crash rates for those who sometimes or rarely drove with pets were similar to the rates of non-pet owners.
The study, which was performed in the Clinical Research Unit in the University of Alabama Department of Ophthalmology, involved 2,000 seniors 70 years of age or older. the study only included community-dwelling seniors, meaning seniors who did not live in a nursing home or assisted living.
691 of participants had pets. Participants took a survey regarding their driving habits, and pet owners were surveyed about their frequency of driving with pets. Participants also took visual sensory and higher-order visual processing tests.
Published in 2013 in Accident Analysis and Prevention, experts found both overall and at-fault crash rates for seniors over 70 increased for those who regularly drove with a pet in the car. Senior author of the study, Gerald McGwin, Ph. D., notes that the unprecedented study is especially relevant for distracted driving awareness.
“This is the first study to evaluate the presence of pets in a vehicle as a potential internal distraction for elderly drivers,” said McGwin, who is also a professor in the Departments of Epidemiology, Ophthalmology and Surgery. “The increased crash rate for elderly drivers who always drive with pets is important in the context of increasing driver awareness about potentially dangerous driving habits.”
The National Highway Safety and Traffic Administration had recently placed greater importance on the dangers of distracted driving, especially texting and driving.
The NHSTA defines distracted driving as any distraction that could potentially remove a driver’s eyes from the road, their hand from the steering wheel, or remove their attention and concentration from the task of driving.
Their distracted driving campaign has even led some states to enact legislation about texting and driving.
Currently, Hawaii is the only state that has legislation regarding driving with a pet in the car. Arizona, Connecticut, and Maine also have general laws regarding activities and behavior that could distract a driver, which could potentially apply to driving with a pet in the vehicle.
McGwin asserts that driving with a pet may be an important issue to consider when addressing public safety. “There is no direct evidence that driving with pets is or is not a threat to public safety, however, indirect evidence exists based on distracted driving research on texting, eating or interacting with electronics or even other passengers,” he said. “And there are certainly anecdotal reports in the news media of crashes and even fatalities caused by drivers distracted by a pet in the vehicle.”
The study also found that half of pet owners admitted to taking their pet in the car at least occasionally, with the pet usually riding on the front passenger seat of in the back seat. “That is consistent with previous studies looking at all drivers, which indicate that slightly more than half of all drivers take a pet with them at times,” noted McGwin. “And it’s interesting to note that earlier surveys indicate that 83 percent of those surveyed agreed that an unrestrained dog was likely dangerous in a moving vehicle, yet only 16 percent have ever used any type of restraint on their own pet.”
Study authors argue that the topic of pet-related distracted driving is an issue that requires further examination, as it is relevant to the prevention of distracted driving behaviors and to general public safety.