Animals would be banned from riding in a motor-vehicle driver’s lap under legislation being sought by N.H. Rep. Jennifer Rhodes.
The Winchester Republican said she was in her neighborhood on Parker Street over the summer when she saw a young girl crash her scooter and fall from the sidewalk into the street just as a car approached.
The man behind the wheel was unable to swerve away because he was steering the vehicle with an arm that was also holding two small dogs, according to Rhodes, who said he was petting the dogs with his other arm. Luckily, she said, the girl’s grandmother pulled the child out of the street just in time.
“I couldn’t believe it, and I said, ‘That’s it,’ ” Rhodes recalled Monday.
She began researching the issue and discovered New Hampshire doesn’t have a specific law prohibiting an animal from being on a person while they are driving, although Hawaii has such a restriction.
“Obviously, I did my homework before I submitted this. I reached out to the attorneys. I reached out to our support staff at the Statehouse,” she said. “The goal would be to add this to the distracted-driving law.”
Rhodes won a second term on Nov. 8.
The N.H. Office of Legislative Services is writing Rhodes’ proposal into a bill for consideration after lawmakers reconvene in January.
Rhodes said her research showed New Hampshire’s only law on dogs and vehicles is a provision that generally prohibits unsecured dogs from the open bed of a pickup truck.
Now that she’s focused on the issue, she said she frequently sees people driving with a dog on their lap.
“I see it every single day now because now I’m watching for it,” she said. “When I was campaigning up at the Winchester Transfer Station I counted three cars in one hour that came in that had either dogs on the driver’s arm or sitting on their lap.”
She also noted other potential problems involving unsecured dogs in a vehicle when an accident occurs.
“If that airbag inflates and a dog is on your lap, it’s going to kill the dog,” she said. “If it’s on the passenger side, it could fling the dog out of the car.”
Keene Police Chief Steven Stewart said that even without a new law, he might pull somebody over if they are driving with a dog on their lap.
“I guess it would depend on how big the dog is and if it is showing any signs of impairing the operation of the vehicle,” he said. “It would be case by case.”
AAA Northern New England has an online information sheet about driving with pets that recommends restraining the animal in the back seat “to avoid distractions as well as to protect the animal and other passengers in the event of a collision.
“Options for restraints include harnesses and crates that can be strapped down.”
Daniel Goodman, a spokesman for the organization, said a 2011 survey conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that while driving with a dog, more than half of respondents said they’d petted it and 17 percent had held the dog or allowed it to sit in their lap.
Rhodes said she has called other New Hampshire representatives to see if they would be willing to sponsor a bill.
“Two of them told me they can’t co-sponsor the bill because they ride with a dog on their lap,” she said.