Leonia, NJ (written by Jim Walsh & Phil Dunn/Courier-Post) -- Not all driving distractions ring or beep. Some of them bark, state officials said Wednesday in urging motorists to restrain their pets on the road.
"You wouldn't put your child in the car unrestrained, so you shouldn't put your pet in the car unrestrained either," Col. Frank Rizzo, superintendent of the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said at a news conference.
"Anything that can instantly take a driver's eyes and mind off the road is a potentially lethal distraction," added Raymond Martinez, chairman of the state's Motor Vehicle Commission.
Under state law, they noted, NJSPCA officers can stop a driver they believe is improperly transporting an animal. Tickets can range from $250 to $1,000 per offense, and a driver can face a disorderly person's offense under animal-cruelty laws.
According to Rizzo, his officers "will be checking for vehicles traveling to and from the shore areas" with unrestrained animals.
"Of course a dog traveling on a driver's lap is bad," he said. "But so are dogs hanging their heads out of windows, birds traveling on a driver's shoulder or cats resting on a dashboard."
A sampling of New Jersey pet owners showed support for the initiative, even as some motorists cruised local highways with dogs serving as co-pilots.
Kathy Sklar of Pennsauken, N.J., said she always transports her pet in a carrier. "That's one of the first things I bought when I got my cat," she said.
"It's really up to the owner, but people take a gamble when they put their animals in the front seat," added Kristina Dello of Cherry Hill.
In a 2010 survey by AAA, Martinez said, 20 percent of participants admitted to letting their dog sit on their lap while they drove. He said a "staggering" 31 percent said they were distracted by their dog while driving.
Rizzo said pets should be "contained or restricted from moving around freely in a car and if that is not possible, at least harnessed or leashed using any number of safety products on the market."
"What people come to realize only too late is that animals act like flying missiles in an impact and can not only hurt themselves but hurt their human family members too," Rizzo said.
More than 5,400 Americans die each year in car accidents caused by distracted driving, primarily as a result of cellphone use, Martinez said.