Doggie Seat Belts Loom in N.J. as Budget Challenges Grow

Doggie Seat Belt Cliff Looms in N.J. as Budget Challenges Grow
The Tru-Fit Smart Harness by Kurgo is seen in this undated product handout. Source: Kurgo via Bloomberg

New Jersey’s unemployment rate is the highest in more than three decades. Revenue trails Governor Chris Christie’s projections by $100 million. And its assembly is considering making the state the first in the U.S. to require drivers to restrain pets in their vehicles.

Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer, a Newark Democrat who owns a Pomeranian named A.J. along with five cats and a rabbit, has introduced a bill to require motorists to secure dogs and felines with a seatbelt-like harness if they’re not being transported in crates. Violators would get a $25 ticket that might escalate to an animal-cruelty charge with a fine of as much as $1,000 in extreme cases, such as having an unrestrained pet in the bed of a pickup.

Securing animals is “a bigger issue than people realize,” said Spencer, 44, a liability-law attorney. She said her measure will protect motorists and animals alike.

“We didn’t think that texting was so big of an issue until people started dying,” she said.

Her proposal riles Assemblyman Jay Webber, a Morris Plains Republican who calls the bill “busybody government at its best.” Webber, whose family when he was a child had a Lhasa apso, introduced a measure to clarify that failure to restrain an animal isn’t equivalent to inhumane treatment. He also said New Jersey is grappling with bigger issues, including a budget deficit and a stagnant economy.

‘Important Problems’

“There are more important problems that we’re facing by a mile,” Webber said.

Christie, 50, the first-term Republican governor, is battling with Democrats who control the legislature over a tax cut that he says will help create jobs. Yet collections in the first two months of the fiscal year are almost $100 million behind the governor’s forecast, according to the state Treasury. New Jersey also has the second-highest serious mortgage delinquency rate in the U.S., as well as the highest property taxes. Its credit outlook was lowered this week to negative by Standard & Poor’s.

While the fiscal squeeze hasn’t hindered Spencer’s quest for pet safety, Kevin Roberts, a Christie spokesman, said in an e-mail that the governor hasn’t taken a position on the measure.

New Jersey, among the earliest U.S. states to ban talking and texting on mobile telephones while driving, would become the first to mandate pet restraints, according to AAA, the nation’s largest motoring group, and the Humane Society of the U.S., a Washington-based animal-protection organization.

Mobile Phones

“One of the most dangerous driving situations is people who use cell phones, but even with a law, people are still doing it,” said Dave Marmelstein, 47, who was at a dog park in Hamilton yesterday with Tycho, his 12-year-old yellow Labrador.

Spencer “only means the best and I don’t think she’s a kook,” Marmelstein said. “But it just makes me feel like: ‘Oh, come on already.’”

Former Governor Jon Corzine witnessed firsthand what can happen to unbelted vehicle occupants. He almost died in a 2007 wreck while riding unbuckled in a Chevrolet Suburban driven by a state trooper at 91 miles per hour.

“It took a remarkable team of doctors and a series of miracles to save my life when all I needed was a seat belt,” the Democrat said in a video recorded after his recovery.

Distracted Driving

Spencer’s measure to restrain pets is supported by Scott Law, an Edison firefighter who witnesses the aftermath of accidents daily and says driver distractions, including mobile phones and animals, are a recurring cause.

When Law was 7, a driver returning home with takeout Chinese food and a dog in the car jumped a curb and hit him, the fireman said. He said he was thrown 50 feet, spent a week in a coma and was left with a stutter.

“They think it’s cute when they’re driving with the dog on their lap, but it’s not cute and it’s not safe,” Law said. “We love our dogs and we want to be with them all the time, but I think we kind of get a little careless at times and we sacrifice their safety.”

Paulina Dombrowski, 22, a marketing assistant from Hamilton, said she always uses a restraining harness for her goldendoodle, Palmer.

“When you have a 35-pound body on you there’s really nothing you can do,” Dombrowski said as she took a break from playing fetch with Palmer at the park.

No Belts

While other states have treated the issue of pets as a distraction, none has mandated belts. Motorists in Arizona and Connecticut may be cited for distracted driving if an unleashed pet interferes. In Hawaii, pets are banned from operators’ laps.

Each day, more than 15 people are killed and 1,200 injured in crashes that were reported to involve a distracted driver, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It defines distraction as taking one’s eyes or mind off the road or hands off the steering wheel.

Almost one in five drivers who travel with dogs said they’ve removed their hands from the wheel to keep a pet from the front seat, according to a 2011 poll conducted by AAA and Kurgo, a manufacturer of animal seat belts. Twenty-three percent said they’ve held a dog in place while braking.

“It’s like having a loose child in the car,” said Kirsten Theisen, director of pet-care issues with the Humane Society.

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