“My dog did it” – the car crash edition

It’s important to ensure that our pets are properly restrained when they’re travelling in cars, so they don’t get hurt or cause an accident.

By Remy Maisel

When’s it OK to let pets take the blame? It’s one thing blaming them for a messy carpet. Quite another for crashing the family car. 

We recently released information on the claims we pay 1. While researching this release, we came across several unusual claims, including one where a dog got into a fender bender – with no human drivers involved (don’t worry – no dogs were harmed in this anecdote).

All canine lovers know that dogs adore driving – usually in the passenger seat with their head out the window, rather than negotiating their own way around the M25.  Although even as passengers, dogs can still land you in as much hot water as they would do driving. 

Sam and Flo
Dr Gaines and Flo, photo courtesy of the RSPCA

A dog sticking their head out the window may actually be the world’s most adorable crime. The Highway Code says: “When in a vehicle make sure dogs or other animals are suitably restrained so they cannot distract you while you are driving or injure you, or themselves, if you stop quickly. A seat belt harness, pet carrier, dog cage or dog guard are ways of restraining animals in cars” 2.

You can’t receive a penalty just for violating that part of the Highway Code. But you can be indirectly punished if you’re found driving without due care and attention because you didn’t restrain your pet – especially if your dog causes an accident. Fall foul of this and you can expect to pay up to £5,000 in fines 3.

It’s not as uncommon as you think – 1 in 10 drivers has either had an accident because of a pet or knows someone who has 4. And if an accident does happen, providers of your car insurance and pet insurance will need to know if your pet was wearing a seat belt or other restraint.

Why aren’t people restraining their dogs?

Dr Samantha Gaines is a dog welfare expert and leads the RSPCA’s Companion Animals Science Department. She has a rescue dog: a five-year-old Bichon Frise, Flo. 

“I believe most responsible dog owners ensure that their dogs are safely restrained when travelling in cars. But sadly, I suspect some people are unaware of the Highway Code and how dangerous it can be for dogs to travel in vehicles without proper restraint,” says Dr Gaines. 

Some dogs find travelling stressful, so it’s important to teach dogs that travelling in the car isn’t scary. This can be done by introducing dogs to short journeys and ensuring that they travel in a safe, comfortable, and secure way. “Flo is less relaxed in the boot, so she travels in a dog crate which is secured on the back seat.”

Rosie Bescoby, a Clinical Animal Behaviourist at Pet Sense and member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, believes that most people probably don’t restrain their dogs – especially small dogs – because they’re unaware of the law. 

So, what does the law say? “Dogs must be restrained, either in the boot with a boot-guard, in a crash-safe crate (the law might not specify the crash-safe bit, but for dog’s safety this is paramount) or on the back seat with a seat-belt,” says Rosie. 

The risks to dogs who aren’t restrained, she reminds us, are just as severe as for human passengers.

How can I keep my dog (and myself) safe?

As Dr Gaines explains, car travel doesn’t necessarily come naturally to pets. “It’s really important to expose puppies and new dogs to positive experiences from a young age,” she adds.

“That includes travelling in vehicles, so we’d urge owners to do this to help prevent any future anxiety,” says Dr Gaines. Putting in the time to introduce your pet to travelling slowly and positively will pay off. 

Here are some of the RSPCA’s top tips for driving safely with your pet:

  • Training: Dogs don’t naturally understand the process of travelling in a car, so it’s important to gradually teach them it’s okay. Using positive, reward-based training methods, introduce your dog to the car on short trips before heading on longer journeys.
  • Stay safe: Dogs should always be restrained safely, securely and comfortably when inside a vehicle – so get the right equipment and choose an option that works for your pet. You can use travelling crates and containers or a boot guard. Alternatively, there are special harnesses that click into a seatbelt to ensure your pet is safe should you perform an emergency stop (available from the RSPCA shop).
  • Comfortable journey: It’s important to make sure any crate is big enough for your dog, well ventilated and in a part of the car with good airflow. Bedding inside will stop him from slipping. If you use a harness, ensure it is well-fitting and comfortable with no sharp clips that can dig into them.
  • Regular breaks: If you’re going on a long journey, stop for regular breaks so your dog can have a drink, stretch their legs and go to the toilet. This will make them much more comfortable on a longer journey.
  • Hot dogs: Just as you will adjust the heat and air conditioning for human passengers, ensure the temperature inside the vehicle is comfortable for your pet. Dogs can easily overheat and may be travelling in the rear of the vehicle – such as the boot – so be sure to check the area they’re in is cool and well-ventilated. Never leave a pet inside a vehicle when parked on a warm day, as temperatures can quickly rise, and pets can suffer or even die from heat exposure.
  • Motion sickness: Unfortunately, some dogs - like people - can struggle with motion sickness. Dogs travel better without a full stomach, so it’s best to feed them more than two hours before the journey.
  • Anxiety: Many dogs can struggle with travel due to anxiety, so make sure they aren’t displaying signs of travel-related problems like barking, whining, jumping, attempting to run around the car, salivating, vomiting, attention-seeking, licking, cowering, hiding or restlessness. If your dog is nervous, don’t punish him/her for any signs of travel-related problems – contact a vet or clinical behaviourist for advice.
  • Chip ‘n’ check: It’s a legal requirement to have your dog microchipped (with your up-to-date contact details registered) and wearing a collar with a name and address. Should you have an accident, it’ll help ensure you and your dog can be reunited.

What if my dog causes an accident?

“Thankfully, I’ve never been involved in an accident which was the result of having a pet in the car,” says Dr Gaines. “But it’s incredibly important to ensure that our pets are safe when they’re travelling in cars and that they’re properly restrained – so they are themselves protected and that they don’t distract us as drivers and, potentially, cause an accident in which other people could be hurt and you could be held liable.” 

If you’re unlucky enough to get into an accident and your dog wasn’t restrained, you’ll need to be honest with your insurers.

When it comes to pet insurance? “Each case would be assessed on its own merits and the driver’s thought process considered. For example, do they usually restrain the dog but failed to do so on this occasion, or do they never restrain?” says Robert Sharp, our Pet Technical Claims Manager. 

A dog being injured in a crash more severely than it should have because it wasn’t restrained, could lead to a declined pet insurance claim – depending on the specifics of the case.

When it comes to your car insurance, Martin Smith, Motor Technical Claims Manager, agrees that you should take precautions. “Best advice?  Properly restrain the critters. But if one gets loose and either causes you to lose control or knock the handbrake and roll the car away, you can expect your motor insurance to cover your liability for the actions of your pet – and, if you have comprehensive cover, damage to your vehicle.”

Your insurance is there to protect you, regardless of the circumstances. According to our 2019 Claims Release 1, last year Aviva paid 99% of motor claims. 

“I have my dogs insured and would encourage all pet owners to consider pet insurance and to ask their insurance company if there are any specific clauses regarding travelling in vehicles,” says Dr Gaines.

“And I hope that everyone reading this will think about whether their pet is safe, comfortable and happy in the car - not only for the dog’s own wellbeing but also for the safety of you and other road users.”

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