Massachusetts drivers will have to put a harness on Fido or secure Fluffy in a pet carrier every time they take their pet for a spin or face a fine of up to $50, if legislation under consideration on Beacon Hill is approved. The move is meant to curb driver distraction and keep pets safer, said the bill's author, state Rep. Robert Fennell, D-Lynn.
"People are supposed to be concentrating on the road, but they're really acting like cars are their living rooms. They've got the TV on, a cup of coffee, and the dog's jumping all over their lap," Fennell said.
He submitted the bill after he spotted a woman driving on the Massachusetts Turnpike with a dog on her lap and a cell phone in her ear.
"We shouldn't be driving around talking on a cell phone," Fennell said. "Why should we drive around with a dog loose in the car?"
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, worries the well-meaning bill a legislative equivalent of commanding Fido to "stay" might be unenforceable.
"Like everything else, it's a question of enforcement," he said. "You can't legislate good sense."
Fennell agrees the bill will be tough to enforce, but he believes it will be one more tool in police officers' arsenal when it comes to punishing distracted drivers.
"Too often, we're filing legislation after some terrible accident has already happened," Fennell said. "I wanted to get out in front of this."
A study by the American Automobile Association found that pets can trigger accidents by distracting the driver. Pets and other loose objects came in third on a list of driver distractions, behind cell phones and rowdy children.
Pet stores do offer pet harnesses that click onto seat belts, and many are less than $50.
State Rep. Kevin Murphy, D-Lowell, said he can't even get his dog into a crate.
"I think we're becoming far too much like big brother," Murphy said about the legislation. "It's going too far."
All drivers and passengers must wear a seat belt when driving a motor vehicle in Massachusetts, and all children under the age of 5 and under 40 pounds must be in a car seat. There is also a law on the books that prohibits motorists from driving with animals in the back of pickup trucks.
Lawmakers held a hearing on Fennell's bill, currently before the Transportation Committee, two weeks ago.