Updated: Oct 20, 2019
These days we drive in our cars just about everywhere. To the shops. To the park. To the beach. Mostly, we take our dogs with us as they just enjoy coming along for the ride. My husband and I have old cars. Pre automatic window winders. Pre airbags even. One's a classic car, one is just an old Ford Station Wagon - with a cargo barrier. Anyway, with the children, we never had to think about kids sitting in the front and height restrictions because of airbag danger. Or even our dog being in the front seat.
But just a week or two ago, I saw a dog walker and his car/people mover pull up to our local off lead dog park with a dog in his front seat - it looked like either an Australian Shepherd or a Border Collie, not sure exactly which as I only saw part of its head above the dashboard. This made me think - if kids under the age of 7 are not allowed to sit in the front seat because airbags are designed to protect adults - what exactly are the rules or safety issues for dogs? According to VicRoads, "You cannot drive a vehicle:
with an animal on your lap
while you or a passenger is leading an animal
while an animal is tied to the vehicle
There are no road rules about securing animals in a vehicle while driving. But, there may be laws in Victoria, such as those preventing cruelty to animals, which may need to be considered when driving with animals in your car."
I know the rules are different in other states of Australia (annoying!) There is no law against animals being in the front seat.
However, also according to VicRoads,
Children aged 4 years old to under 7 years old can only sit in the front seat if all of the back seats are taken by other passengers under 7 years old.
If your vehicle does not have a back seat (e.g. a ute) they can travel in the front seat if they are in a child restraint
So, what does this all mean? Well, firstly, don't let your dog travel in the front seat and definitely not on your lap even as a passenger. From The Globe and Mail, Canada by Richard Russell. "Airbags are designed to deploy in a fraction of a second after a collision. Sensors tell them the distance of the seat relative to the dash, the position of the occupant and whether or not they are wearing their belt. The goal is for the bag to fully deploy to maximum size before the occupant's upper body rushes forward toward the dash or wheel, throwing up a big pillow to protect their chest and head. It works incredibly well, saving thousands of lives and preventing tens of thousands of injuries every year. But no system has been developed to recognize that there is a dog in the way. While I refer to the airbag as having a pillow-like effect, that is only because it is designed to deflate as quickly as it inflates - shrinking a millisecond after it has reached maximum size and contact has been made with it. Until that moment, the bag is inflating at high speed. Anything in the way will be hit with massive force more powerful than the biggest, most powerful heavyweight boxer's punch."
Sydney Veterinarian, Dr Alex Hynes, says in an article on her website "Whilst air bags might look like soft, puffy, white cushions after deployment, the force and speed at which they initially operate, in the event of even a minor collision, is shocking. An air bag is designed to release at speeds of up to 200 km/hr in less than a 1/3 of a second. A dog sitting on your knee in the front seat is at risk of serious or fatal injury by being crushed between you and the air bag." So what is the answer? Well it is not straight forward actually. We know they shouldn't sit on your lap in the front seat as a passenger. We know that it is illegal for them to sit on the driver's lap.
We also know, from the NRMA doing crash tests with dogs and harnesses that basically a harness is not going to keep your dog safe but it COULD prevent your dog from becoming a flying missile. Way back in 2013, the NRMA tested 25 harnesses with weighted crash test dog dummies and that "all but two failed to restrain the ‘dummy’, due to the use of weak plastic buckles similar to those used on most backpacks" Also, "in a survey of 450 NSW dog owners, over 40 per cent admitted to the insurer that they don’t restrain their dog when it’s travelling in the car. Dog owners are simply placing them on the front or back seat (70 per cent), in the back luggage area (15 per cent) or alarmingly on their lap (4 per cent)"
I saw a video while researching this subject which suggested that if you have a small dog, zip it into a soft crate and place it in the well of the back seat passenger area. I thought this was a good idea. They suggested not to use a seatbelt with a soft crate unless recommended by the manufacturer as the seatbelt can crush the crate.
If your dog is larger, placing them in the rear of your car if you have a station wagon etc (and a cargo barrier) without restraining them - at least stops them from becoming a flying missile around the car in the event of an accident. Even better, have crates made up and fixed to the rear of your car. These Variocages seem like they are pretty safe and are available in Australia. Here are some crash test videos done at the Center for Pet Safety Then there is the harness/seatbelt situation. This set up, will generally stop the dog from becoming a missile but is not designed to keep the dog safe. Do not attach a seatbelt tether to your dogs collar for obvious reasons so make sure that it is attached to a harness.
Here are a whole bunch of crash test videos for harnesses that were tested at the Center For Pet Safety in 2013 - if you watch even just one or two - I think you will be shocked at how little they do to protect the actual dog. And here is the dog who inspired the testing for harnesses - Maggie.
So, what is the answer? There is no real right answer sadly.
But here are some tips/ideas 1. If you have airbags, don't let them ride in the front seat. 2. If you use a harness/tether system, these are more to protect the passengers than the animals
3. If you have a small dog - put them in a soft crate and in the footwell in the back
4. If you can, install a cargo barrier and the dogs can go in the back behind it.
5. Install a Variocage
As you can see from my research, there is no priority for animal safety in our cars. We need to change that. Some of the measures above really only will stop them from becoming missiles and/or wandering around the car - nothing is really designed to keep them from injury.
Byrne, G. and Hynes, R. (2013). Dog car harnesses - Car accessories - CHOICE. www.choice.com. Available at: https://www.choice.com.au/transport/cars/accessories/articles/dog-car-harness NRMA Insurance. (2013). Paws and secure your puppy. Available at: http://www.nrma.com.au/paws-and-secure-your-puppy
Russell, Richard (2010) Updated April 2018 SPECIAL TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL
Air Bags and Lap dogs - a Deadly Combination
Available at: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/culture/commuting/air-bags-and-lap-dogs-a-deadly-combination/article1241056/ Hynes, Dr Alex (2017) Air Bags and Your Dog - Know the Risk
https://dralexhynes.com.au/air-bags-dog-know-risk/ Center For Pet Safety - 2015 Crate Study Results
Center for Pet Safety - 2013 Harness Crash Test Videos Available at: https://www.centerforpetsafety.org/test-results/harnesses/2013-harness-crash-test-videos/
Vic Roads - Driving or Riding With Animals Available at: https://www.vicroads.vic.gov.au/safety-and-road-rules/road-rules/a-to-z-of-road-rules/animals