Senior Citizens Who Regularly Drive with Dog in Car
Double Their Risk of Crash
Over half the elderly pet owners say they take
their pet with them in car at least occasionally
May 6, 2013 – Senior citizens who habitually put
their dog in the car whenever they drive are increasing their risk for
being involved in a vehicle collision, say
University of Alabama at Birmingham
(UAB) researchers. They say both overall and at-fault crash rates for
drivers 70 years of age or older were higher for those whose pet
habitually rode with them.
“This is the first study to evaluate the presence
of pets in a vehicle as a potential internal distraction for elderly
drivers,” said Gerald McGwin, Ph.D., a professor in the Departments of
Epidemiology, Ophthalmology and Surgery and senior author of the study.
“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.”
Distracted driving has become a focal point for the
National Highway Safety Traffic
Administration and is defined as anything that could
potentially remove a driver’s eyes from the road, their hands from the
steering wheel or their concentration from the task of driving.
The authors report that cell phone use has received
the most attention, which has led some states to enact legislation
controlling their use. Currently Hawaii is the only state that
specifically restricts drivers from having a pet in the lap. Arizona,
Connecticut and Maine have broader laws restricting behavior or
activities that could potentially distract a driver; such laws could be
applicable to pets in a vehicle.
“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,” said McGwin.
“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 authors suggest that when confronted with an
increased cognitive or physical workload while driving, elderly drivers
have exhibited slower cognitive performance and delayed response times
in comparison to younger age groups.
“Adding another distracting element, especially an
active, potentially moving animal, provides more opportunity for an
older driver to respond to a driving situation in a less than
satisfactory way,” said McGwin.
“Regulations in this area might be warranted,
particularly if our findings are replicated by others.”
The study, conducted in the
Clinical Research Unit in
Department of Ophthalmology,
enrolled 2,000 community-dwelling (those who do not live in assisted
living or nursing homes) licensed drivers age 70 and older, of whom 691
had pets. Study subjects took a survey on driving habits, and those with
pets were asked about the frequency of driving with pets. Participants
also underwent visual sensory and higher-order visual processing
The crash risk for drivers who always drove with
their pets was double that of drivers who never drove with a pet, while
crash rates for those who sometimes or rarely drove with pets were
consistent with the rates for non-pet owners.
More than half the pet owners said they took their
pet with them in the car at least occasionally, usually riding on the
front passenger seat or 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,” said 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.”
Given the current debate about all types of
distracted driving, the study authors suggest that further study of
pet-related distracted driving behaviors among older drivers, as well as
younger populations, with respect to driver safety and performance is
warranted to appropriately inform the need for policy regulation on this