Sunday, October 26th, 2014
Half-True
Palumbo
Driving with a dog in your lap is dangerous, in part, because it could fly forward in a crash. "An 80-pound dog at only 30 mph packs a 2,400-pound punch."

Peter Palumbo on Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013 in a news release

Rhode Island Rep. Peter Palumbo says a dog in a driver’s lap poses flying projectile risk

Note to pet owners: that license you got for Fido is not a license for the dog to drive.

That seems to be what some drivers are thinking when they let their pet sit behind the steering wheel.

State Rep. Peter Palumbo, concerned that lapdogs and their owners might end up playing dead for real, issued a news release on Jan. 22 announcing that he had introduced 2013-H 5101, legislation that would prohibit drivers from allowing dogs to sit on their laps. Fines would range from $85 for a first offense to as high as $125.

"A driver preoccupied by a pet on his lap is not a safe driver," he said.

Palumbo, a Cranston Democrat, reported that a 2010 survey done by AAA found that 21 percent of drivers let a dog ride in their lap during the previous year. But it was the next sentence of his news release that appealed to our fact-checking instincts.

"The auto club called it dangerous because an unrestrained 10-pound dog traveling at 50 miles per hour flies forward with 500 pounds of pressure in a crash and an 80-pound dog at only 30 mph packs a 2,400-pound punch," his news release said.

Three questions immediately came to mind: (1.) Who puts an 80-pound dog on his lap? (2.) Could an 80-pound dog even FIT between a driver and the steering wheel? and (3.) If you get into an accident with Marmaduke on your lap, wouldn't the big dog actually cushion you from the impact?

While we waited for Palumbo to get back to us, we found a July 19, 2011, news release from AAA that contained key elements of his argument. It reports on the results of a 2011 survey of 1,000 owners who have driven with their dogs in the previous year.

The survey found that 17 percent admitted to holding their dog while driving or allowing it to sit on their lap. (It turns out that the 21 percent figure Palumbo cited is from a similar 2010 survey.)

Both news releases say more common distractions for drivers are taking a hand off the wheel to pet their dogs or restrain them when putting on the brakes.

And both news releases urge drivers to use restraint systems for their dogs. (The surveys were sponsored by Kurgo, a company that just happens to sell products for safely restraining animals when they travel).

So what does this have to do with dogs in your lap?

Not much.

The numbers in the news releases that Palumbo cites are mostly relevant to dogs elsewhere in the car, not on the driver's lap. The dog might even help cushion the impact for the driver, a scenario that wouldn't be good for the dog.  

"It is very likely the crash will be fatal to your pet," Heather Hunter of AAA told us. "In this situation your pet will be hit with tremendous force from both the driver and air bag. The driver is also at greater risk for internal injury or death." The airbag "will throw your pet into you as you are being thrown into the airbag."

The biggest problem with lapdogs is that they are a distraction that can cause an accident, she stressed.

Hunter was also able to answer another question for us. It turns out she has an 80-pound dog, which she said wouldn’t fit on her lap "unless I had the seat all the way back, and in that case I'm not reaching the pedals."

When Palumbo got back to us, he acknowledged that a lap dog might actually cushion the impact. "I didn't think of that," he said.

He said he has not proposed any law requiring pets to be restrained in vehicles.

Our ruling

In arguing for a proposed law that would ban dogs from the laps of drivers, Rep. Peter Palumbo says that AAA says the practice is "dangerous because an unrestrained 10-pound dog traveling at 50 miles per hour flies forward with 500 pounds of pressure in a crash and an 80-pound dog at only 30 mph packs a 2,400-pound punch."

Driving with a dog in your lap is dangerous, but not for the reason he cites.

Because his statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context, we rate Half True.

(After publication of this item, several readers informed us that the characterization of the force of a flying dog -- as made by AAA and repeated by Palumbo -- was incorrect.

("One cannot simply multiply speed by weight to get an impact force," said Daniel Schmidt of Blacksburg, Va., a mathematics graduate student at Virginia Tech. "Think about this: running into something at high speed would hurt just as much in deep space, where all weights are zero."

("For that matter, there is no way to calculate the impact force from the given data," he said, citing one problem in Palumbo's -- and AAA's -- statement. "One would also need to know how long it takes for the dog (and the car) to stop moving. Stopping relatively slowly would mean that the force would be small, and stopping very suddenly would produce a huge force, even with the same mass and initial velocity."
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(If you have a claim you’d like PolitiFact Rhode Island to check, e-mail us at politifact@providencejournal.com. And follow us on Twitter: @politifactri.)