By LAURA SCHWARTZMAN, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS (Jan. 24, 2008) - Delegate Kevin Kelly is "scared to death" when he sees dogs traveling loose in pickup trucks in his rural Allegany County district. So the Democratic lawmaker introduced a bill last week to punish the practice, boasting bipartisan co-sponsors and the support of a "vast majority" of his constituents.
Twenty-five states now have tether laws in place that require pets to be restrained while traveling. Kelly is optimistic Maryland will be next.
The law, which applies to trucks and trailers, would require an animal to be in a vehicle that is totally enclosed. If not the pet would have to be confined to a cage or attached to a harness.
Errant drivers would incur a $100 fine for the first offense and $250 thereafter. The law does not apply to livestock.
"I have heard in the past of dogs flying out of vehicles, dogs being killed in accidents, dogs jumping out and getting hit in other lanes of traffic," Kelly said. "It's totally unwarranted."
Jim Kelly of Travelin' Pets, an online retailer, said he's heard estimates of more than 100,000 dogs jumping or falling out of vehicles each year.
"I've also read several stories about dogs that were okay when the car came to a stop, but they jumped out and then got hit," he said.
A Maryland State Police spokesman said a cursory glance through recent reports did not yield any accidents caused by loose pets, and Stephanie Bell, a senior cruelty case worker with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said she's enthusiastic about the bill but loose pets in trucks are not something she commonly sees.
The potential for harm to unrestrained pets is obvious, so [Delegate] Kelly and other advocates are playing up the risks to motorists. Kelly said he's distracted by loose pets in other vehicles, and a car swerving to avoid an escaped dog, he said, is a danger to everybody on the road.
"It becomes a situation of divided attention," Kelly said, adding that drivers with loose animals in their own vehicles are also at risk.
Some activists want to see more done. Bark-BuckleUP, a nationwide campaign to encourage pet seatbelts, claims an unrestrained 60-pound dog can hit a passenger with the force of 1,200 pounds in a 30 mph accident.
Loose animals can also hinder emergency response by distracting or attacking rescue workers, said Christina Selter, founder of the California-based campaign. She supports the Maryland bill but urges more precautions, such as the use of specially-engineered pet belts or an outright ban on transporting pets in open truck beds and trailers - whether restrained or not.
"Even in a small accident, the dog is still going to be injured," she said. "Those harnesses are only thin straps, and it cuts through their skin."
Kelly does not expect much opposition, although the bill has been held up in previous sessions. He especially casts doubt on the suggestion that hunters and farmers will be inconvenienced.
"No hunter is going to put his good hunting dog in the back of a vehicle like that to be injured or killed," he said.