Eleven years ago I was in a head-on collision on a dark country road. I came around a blind corner and suddenly there was a pickup truck coming at me in my lane. I swerved onto the shoulder, and so did the truck. The ensuing impact triggered the air bag and shortened my Honda Civic by three feet. Fortunately, my two dogs were home, waiting to see what I brought them from the dinner I’d been to.
This time they had to wait longer than usual, because I spent the next week in the hospital. I eventually walked out on my own—limped, actually, on a fractured ankle, and with a spiffy new titanium-reinforced wrist and several broken ribs—but if they’d been with me in the car that night, sitting in the back seat, odds are we all would have been a lot worse off.
People who always wear seat belts, and buckle in small children as a matter of habit, sometimes allow the family dog to wander freely around the car, or let it sit on the driver’s lap and hang its head out the window.
But species-specific strands of DNA aside, in a car crash there’s little difference between an unsecured dog and an unbelted human—both are basically large bags of meat and bone flying around in the interior, vulnerable to injury and capable of inflicting it, sometimes lethally, on other occupants.
I have little doubt that the combined weight of Winzer and Daisy (both now long gone and sorely missed) would have clocked me hard enough in the back of the head to put my lights out permanently—never mind what it might have done to them if they survived.
These days my two dogs Dickens and Molly (a.k.a. Molly Don’t Eat That It’s Disgusting) ride in the back of my old Honda CR-V separated from the passenger section by a barrier made of cheap tubular steel. This is what Lindsey Wolko, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Center for Pet Safety, calls a “distraction prevention” product. It’s also, as she pointed out to me, useless in a crash, and would probably just add to the number of things flying around inside the car.
There are virtually no state or federal laws regarding how to carry pets in vehicles, and no safety standards at all for the products most often used to carry them, so naturally there were no crash standards for pet-carrying products. Then the CPS came along.
“We did a pilot study in 2011 and we sat on the information for a while because we feared it would throw a hand grenade in the pet industry,” Wolko told me. “How were we going to address this without scaring pet owners? There wasn’t really any way around that. In 2012 or so New Jersey started the process to legislate the use of harness devices or restraint products for pets, and it was a ticketable offense there. We reached out to The Today Show and went from zero media right to TV. That’s how Subaru found us.”
Crash testing is expensive, and no one knew that better than a car manufacturer. Michael McHale, a spokesman for Subaru, explained that Subaru’s cars tend to be particularly popular with people who carry pets in vehicles, particularly dogs. “I think it’s like 60 percent carry their pets in their vehicles at least once a month,” he said.
With funding from Subaru the CPS was able to hire MGA Research, an independent testing facility used by the government, the military, and the aircraft industry. But first they needed standards to test.
With help from specialists in the field, the former head test engineer with the IIHS, and even volunteers from NASA, the CPS decided to use FMVSS 213—the standards that govern restraint systems for kids under 80 pounds—as the baseline, using the same speed, impact, and data curves used to test child safety seats, but with slightly different rules to account for dogs instead of humans.
The car itself had to be eliminated as a variable. “We had to,” Wolko said, “because you can’t hold the [car] manufacturer accountable for things that are outside of their control. That’s why with the crate testing we eliminated that variable, and only went up to a certain size in the harness testing. We’ve made this as simple as possible for manufacturers to duplicate our test procedures, and the only challenge we have right now is to get some better test dogs out there for the industry to test with. We make our dogs available free of charge to the industry so they can use them to test with MGA. They’re free to use all of our equipment but they have to test at MGA.”
MGA’s acceleration sled was used to test the crashworthiness of three types of products, roughly divided as follows. (The photos are for illustrative purposes only here.)
Harnesses: These are wearable devices to restrain the dog from wandering around inside the car and possibly causing a crash by distracting the driver, or give the dog the best chances of survival with a higher, very restrictive level of restraint. These are basically seat belts for the dog. Harnessed dogs should be in the back seat; up front they’re vulnerable to injury from the passenger-side airbag. Typical prices range from $25 to $50.
Carriers: Made of either hard plastic or a soft mesh material, they’re made for small- to medium-sized pets and are designed to sit on the back seat. The better ones come with straps, or use the car’s seat belts to keep them on the seat in crash. Most don’t come with any sort of anchor straps. They’re priced anywhere from $40 to $100.
Crates: Made primarily for bigger dogs, they usually fit only in the rear cargo area of a crossover, wagon, or SUV, butted up against the rear of the back seat to reduce the forward momentum in the event of a sudden stop. The good ones come with straps that use the car’s anchor points to keep the crate in place. You can drop up to $500 for a top-of-the-line crate, but many average less than half of that.
The crash tests don’t use actual dogs, of course, but “simulants” that themselves have evolved since the pilot study.
“The test dogs from the pilot study didn’t hold up well,” Wolko told me. “They were appropriately weighted but it wasn’t a finessed design, and it wasn’t a very attractive-looking unit. We decided early on that we wanted pet owners to envision their own pets, so we worked with a plush designer who put together the fur coats to make them look like dogs. The dogs are now engineered and molded, and there’s a fabricator we work with to help us make sure they’re all hand balanced and appropriately weighted like a real dog. We have seven or eight breeds, and now we have a kitty for the little carriers.”
The most recent round of testing took place in 2015, and was limited to products that made claims of crash testing or crash protection—not many, as it turned out. “We tested only four brands in the crate category,” she said. “All but one brand did crash testing but then we get into the interpretation of ‘passing’ because each brand has its own criteria. Two of the European crates were very reliant on the seat-back structure. We were worried about the seatback strength so we eliminated that variable in the testing.”
In a head-on like I had in my Civic, the tubular barrier I use to keep my dogs from climbing up to the front of the car would have been worse than useless. But there isn’t enough front-to-back room in the rear of my CR-V for two crates big enough to hold Dickens and Molly, and the wheel wells take up a lot of the floor space anyway.
I mentioned this to Wolko, and she told me what she tells everybody concerned about their dogs. “Regardless of your financial situation, we recommend pet owners take a good look at crash-protection products. This is an investment, and hopefully you’ll only ever have to buy it once.”
The prices of some of these products might make you wince, but as Wolko pointed out, dogs often come off much worse than humans in car crashes, with spinal injuries fairly common. Assuming the dog survives, vet bills to treat these injuries can run into the thousands of dollars. Compared to a crate, that’s a screaming deal.
For now I’m going to cobble up a better, sturdier barrier, one that’s strong enough to keep my dogs in place during panic stops, if not a crash. I’m also looking around at other options, up to and including different vehicles with larger rear cargo areas.
Meanwhile, until I figure out how to keep my dogs—and myself—safe, I’m driving very slowly and carefully to the park every afternoon. They might be just dogs, but they’re family to me.
Jerry Smith has been a motojournalist for… well, a very long time. When he’s not writing about motorcycles, he makes up stories about people who don’t exist. His latest novel, Dents, is about some of those people, and the awful and funny things he makes happen to them.