Is It Legal to Drive With a Pet in Your Lap in California?

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Many pet owners in California wonder whether it is legal to drive with a pet sitting in a driver’s lap. While no specific law in place forbids this practice, it may still cause legal problems for a pet owner. An unrestrained dog or cat in a vehicle can be unpredictable, even if the pet likes traveling in the car. A passing driver, car horn, or other distraction could startle the pet and cause the driver to lose control of the vehicle. A pet riding in a driver’s lap could also suffer extreme injuries in a motor vehicle accident.

Animal Cruelty Charges

Since an unrestrained pet riding in a driver’s lap could suffer catastrophic personal injuries in an accident, the California Highway Patrol strongly discourages pet owners from doing so. Airbags can cause serious injuries to small pets and their owners and interfere with the safety device’s ability to function correctly. California does not require pet restraints for enclosed vehicles. For example, a cat or dog may travel unrestrained in the seats of a vehicle in motion if the vehicle has an enclosed cabin. A pet cannot ride unrestrained in the open bed of a pickup truck.

A driver could face animal cruelty charges if a pet suffers injuries or death in an accident while riding on the driver’s lap. The state could argue that the driver’s failure to restrain the pet exposed it to a life-threatening risk; therefore, the driver committed animal cruelty by allowing the pet to ride unrestrained. Pet owners may also face animal cruelty charges for leaving pets unattended in vehicles during their trips.

Distracted Driving

Having an unrestrained pet in the car can also make it difficult for the driver to maintain safe control of the vehicle. For example, a small pet could get underfoot and interfere with the driver’s ability to operate the brake, gas, and/or clutch pedals. A pet’s leash, if left attached, could wrap around various parts of the vehicle’s interior and potentially cause an accident. A pet’s actions inside the vehicle may distract the driver, leading to speeding, moving violations, and accidents.

California may not have laws expressly prohibiting driving with a pet riding in a driver’s lap, but specific laws do ban distracted driving. Drivers may not use cellphones behind the wheel, except for work-related or emergency purposes with the use of devices that enable hands-free calling. A police officer may deem that a pet riding in the driver’s lap was enough of a distraction to cause an accident or commit a moving violation.

Preventing Pet Injuries and Avoiding Legal Penalties

Animal cruelty charges can result in hundreds of dollars in fines and possibly even jail time. Subsequent charges lead to increased penalties. Distracted driving will lead to similar consequences and possibly driver’s license suspension and enrollment in diversionary programs.

The California Highway Patrol recommends keeping small dogs and cats secured in crates or kennels while riding in vehicles. Pets should not remain close to deployable airbags and should not have access to the vehicle’s operating systems. California laws regarding the transportation of pets do not apply to horses, pigs, chickens, or other animals transported for agricultural purposes. If a dog owner tethers a dog in a truck bed, the owner should use a harness instead of a collar. In the event of a sharp turn or accident, a collar may choke the dog, whereas a harness may help evenly distribute the force of a crash over the dog’s body and prevent acute injuries.

Although many pet owners enjoy traveling with their pets and keeping them on their laps may seem harmless, the reality is that doing so puts pets and drivers in extreme danger. Even a second or two of inattention at moderate speeds can cause serious accidents that small pets may not survive.