Most states, including New York, have distracted driving laws that address the use of cell phones behind the wheel. Fines and points are assessed for talking on a handheld phone, using email or texting features, taking photos or playing games — just about anything you’d do with a smartphone, besides talking hands-free, is prohibited.
Handheld devices receive the most attention, but their use represents just one type of distracted driving. Almost anyone who has traveled on New York highways has witnessed drivers eating, shaving, reading books or putting on makeup.
Motorists also are fond of sharing the driver’s seat with their pets. AAA conducted a survey back in 2011 that found more than half of drivers pet their animals while driving, and 17 percent will put their pet in their lap.
Can this distract a driver? Absolutely. But generally speaking, it’s not against the law in New York or most other states. One small Ohio municipality, however, has taken that step to outlaw the practice, and in so doing renewed the conversation about distracted driving.
Mantua, Ohio, passed a law in late 2018 that prohibits drivers from holding an animal on their lap or being distracted by an animal while operating a vehicle. Violations are misdemeanors. The move in this town of barely 1,000 people garnered some national attention. It wasn’t the first attempt across the country to stop drivers from cuddling their animals while on the move, but states have achieved varying degrees of success.
Pets and Distracted Driving Laws
Hawaii is the only state that directly fines drivers for having a pet on their lap. It’s a $97 fine. But other some other states have addressed, or have tried to address, the practice indirectly:
- Connecticut drivers could be charged under the state’s distracted driving law for having a pet in their lap, owing to the provision that “no person shall engage in any activity not related to the actual operation of a motor vehicle that interferes with its safe operation on a highway.”
- Wisconsin passed an inattentive driving law with broad language that says drivers may not “be engaged or occupied with an activity, other than driving the vehicle, that interferes or reasonably appears to interfere with the person’s ability to drive the vehicle safely.”
Each of these laws, like those in some other states, leaves room to interpret which activities interfere with safely operating a vehicle. To that end, a number of state legislatures have crafted bills directly addressing pets in driver’s seats, but with the exception of Hawaii they have not passed.
For example, two Florida lawmakers attempted to dramatically broaden their state’s distracted driving bill early in 2019. It would have added a range of specific activities, including “interacting with pets or unsecured cargo,” to the definition of distracted driving. The bill did not pass, though Florida did toughen its laws on cell phone use behind the wheel in the process.
New York State’s distracted driving law, however, only talks about portable electronic devices and doesn’t address — indirectly or otherwise — additional activities that could pull a driver’s eyes or mind from the road. So the flexibility afforded to law enforcement in states such as Connecticut and Wisconsin does not exist here.
Legislators introduced a bill in 2013 that would have prohibited operation of a motor vehicle in New York State with a pet in the front seat, but — as in other states — it failed to pass.
Cruelty to Animals
Though few states explicitly prohibit drivers from carrying an animal on their laps with an eye toward reducing distracted driving, some have animal cruelty laws that could allow for prosecution of a driver who has a pet on their lap.
For example, in North Carolina a person may not “carry or cause to be carried in or upon any vehicle or other conveyance, any animal in a cruel or inhuman manner.” Massachusetts law says it’s a violation if a person “carries it or causes it to be carried in or upon a vehicle, or otherwise, in an unnecessarily cruel or inhuman manner or in a way and manner which might endanger the animal carried thereon.”
“Cruel or inhuman manner” is left to interpretation. But consider that in many cases, it’s recommended that children under 13 avoid the front seat due to the potential impact of an airbag, even if the children are properly restrained by a seat belt. A pet — typically smaller than, say, a 10-year-old — perched freely between a driver and a steering wheel, is at significant risk in even a minor collision that might not injure a driver in normal circumstances but does deploy an airbag.
New York State’s animal cruelty laws, however, lack this general language. Section 353 of Agriculture & Markets Laws addresses misdemeanor cruelty to animals, but the text sets a higher bar for cruelty than simply placing an animal in harm’s way. Cruelty is defined in terms of overdriving, torturing or neglecting animals. The most tepid phrase says that a person “who willfully sets on foot, instigates, engages in, or in any way furthers any act of cruelty to any animal, or any act tending to produce such cruelty,” is guilty of a misdemeanor.
In summary, distracted driving laws in New York do not expressly or even indirectly prohibit holding your dog or cat on your lap while you drive. But many other states have restrictions in place that create a template for legislators to follow if they so choose.
Paul Giannetti, Attorney at Law, is an Albany workers’ compensation attorney also specializing in personal injury and Social Security disability. For a free consultation, call (518) 243-8011 or complete an online request form.