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Public Safety

Next in New Jersey: Pets Buckle Up?

Proposed fine for driving with unfettered pets: $25

Photograph by Aaron Richter for Bloomberg Businessweek

Proposed fine for driving with unfettered pets: $25

New Jersey’s 9.9 percent unemployment rate is the highest since 1977. Almost 10 percent of homeowners are 90 days or more behind on their mortgage payments, the second-worst delinquency rate in the nation. So far this fiscal year, state revenue trails Governor Chris Christie’s projections by $100 million. Oh, and pets are wantonly riding around in cars without wearing seat belts.

Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer, a Newark Democrat who owns five felines and a Pomeranian, has introduced a bill that would require drivers to secure dogs and cats with a harness if they’re not riding in crates. Violators would get a $25 ticket that could escalate to an animal cruelty charge and a fine of as much as $1,000 in extreme cases—say, letting a pet ride in the bed of a pickup. Drivers in Arizona and Connecticut already may be cited for distracted driving if an unleashed pet interferes, and pets are banned from operators’ laps in Hawaii. But if Spencer’s bill passes, New Jersey will be the first state to mandate pet restraints, according to AAA.

Spencer, an attorney, first considered the idea after a school group suggested it. Then, while at her veterinarian’s office, she heard about a dog that broke its legs in a car accident. That was all it took to get her to write the bill. She says it will protect drivers, too: “We didn’t think that texting was so big of an issue until people started dying.”

Republican Assemblyman Jay Webber, of Morris Plains, calls Spencer’s bill “busybody government at its best.” He’s introduced his own bill that says failure to restrain an animal isn’t inhumane. “There are more important problems that we’re facing by a mile,” says Webber, who is pet-less.

Even pet owners pause at crossing the legal rubicon into pet regulation. Spencer “only means the best,” says Hamilton resident Dave Marmelstein, who has a yellow Labrador. “But it just makes me feel like: ‘Oh, come on already.’” As for Governor Christie? For now he’s letting the fur fly.

The bottom line: New Jersey would be the first state to make dogs and cats wear seat belts under a proposal from a Democratic lawmaker.

Dopp is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Trenton, N.J.

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