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How safe are pet car harnesses and crates?

Until recently, little if any indepdent testing had been done on car safety devices for pets.
Until recently, little if any indepdent testing had been done on car safety devices for pets. (©istockphoto.com/ josh banks)

Q: Many car harnesses for dogs and travel carriers for various pets look pretty flimsy. Do these things really keep our animals safe in cars?

A: If you have pets who ride in the car with you, and you’re looking for a holiday present more meaningful than extra toys or treats, how about the gift of safety?

It’s simply dangerous for pets of any size to travel unrestrained in vehicles. Not only do loose pets distract drivers, but in case of a panic stop or accident, pets riding on a seat or human lap go flying and may be injured or killed. In addition, even a small unrestrained pet can become a hazardous projectile and cause serious injury to human passengers. For the same reasons we use car seats for kids and seat belts for adults, pets need safety restraints.
It’s long been recommended that smaller pets travel in body harnesses or soft carriers that interface with a car’s shoulder belt, or in a travel carrier or crate, for larger dogs. Those options keep pets in place during normal driving, reducing distractions. And in case of an accident, it was believed they might reduce the likelihood of pet injury.
But how did we know these harnesses and carriers would really protect our pets in an accident? As it turns out, all we had were manufacturers’ claims. Unlike child-safety restraints, little if any independent evaluation had been done on pet restraints until recently.
That changed when pet-safety advocate Lindsey A. Wolko founded the Reston, Va.-based Center for Pet Safety in 2011. It is a registered nonprofit research and advocacy organization dedicated to companion animal and consumer safety. Wolko got involved in pet safety literally by accident — when a travel harness failed to protect one of her own dogs from injury during a panic-stop highway incident. After her dog recovered, she looked for a better product but discovered there were no safety standards or required testing for pet products. She also learned that the Consumer Product Safety Commission didn’t monitor or regulate marketing claims related to pet product safety.
So the Center for Pet Safety became the first to independently test harnesses, carriers and crates using rigorous standards and simulated crash tests, similar to methods used to evaluate child-safety seats. They even created life-size crash-test dummy animals, ranging from small to large. In exhaustive tests on a broad sampling, most of these products failed.
The Center for Pet Safety notes on its website that its goal is not to attack manufacturers for selling well-intentioned products. The point isn’t that manufacturers are ignoring safety standards — it’s that there are no existing standards, through no fault of pet-product companies. By thoroughly evaluating products, the Center for Pet Safety hopes to provide the impetus needed to establish real safety standards and help companies make safer products.
Even without the guidance of safety standards, a few current products did well in the crash tests. While some top performers are pricey, others are more affordable — and it’s hard to put a price on the safety of a beloved pet.
The Center for Pet Safety website provides detailed results on how specific products performed in tests — including some eye-opening slow-motion videos showing what actually happens to a pet in an accident or short stop and exactly how various restraint products failed. To read the reports and view the videos, go to centerforpetsafety.org and click on the Test Results section. The information you learn could save your pet’s life.
Bottom line? A few products live up their protection claims. But even if you can’t afford one of the top performers, any restraint is better than none. At the very least, it will keep your pet safer in normal driving and make it much less likely to distract you behind the wheel. That alone can help you avoid trouble, since distracted driving is a leading cause of accident, injury and death on the road.
Of course, you can still get some fun toys and treats for holiday pet presents. But knowing your pets will be safer in the car will also give you extra peace of mind — a gift that’s priceless. 
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