When Fido rides shotgun

By Mark Vallet

Americans shared their homes with 377.4 million animals in 2011, according to the American Pet Products Association survey.

Cats were the most popular pet, at 86.4 million, and dogs came in a close second with 78.2 million.

But while a car ride with a cat is an exercise in tension, a dog goes along for the fun of it. A recent AAA survey found that 56 percent of dog owners had driven with companions at least once a month over the past year.

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Unfortunately, most people are driving dangerously when Fido is riding shotgun. Sixty-five percent admitted engaging in distracting activities such as petting their dog (52 percent) and using their hands to restrict the dog's movement when braking (23 percent).

Despite knowing better -- 83 percent agree that driving with an unrestrained dog is dangerous -- only 16 percent use a restraining device.

The danger of an unrestrained pet is very real. According to Jennifer Huebner-Davidson, AAA National Traffic Safety program manager, an unrestrained 10-pound dog in a crash at 50 mph will exert roughly 500 pounds of force, while an unrestrained 80-pound dog in a crash at only 30 mph will exert approximately 2,400 pounds of force.

Adam Fell of Veterinary Pet Insurance says the most common types of injuries suffered by pets in car accidents are bruises and lacerations, chest and head trauma, major wounds, fractures and ruptured organs. All of these require extensive -- and expensive -- medical care.

So is my pet covered?

If the accident was your fault, your vet bills are your own problem, says Penny Gusner, consumer analyst at CarInsurance.com. A pet is considered personal property, and collision and comprehensive typically cover damage only to the vehicle.

On the other hand, if the other driver was at fault, you can make a claim against their property damage liability coverage. The bills for your car and the bills for your pet would come out of the same pot of money, so if the at-fault driver's limits aren't high enough to pay everything, you would still be on the hook.

Fortunately, a number of car insurers value your pet like a member of the family and include some coverage on their collision policies.

Progressive was the first insurer to add pet coverage back in 2007. Other insurers have jumped on the bandwagon, but availability varies by insurer and by state.

Here is a quick rundown of the major insurers that will cover your pet in an accident:

  • AAA Insurance - Dogs and cats only. This is not a national program so check with your local club. $500 injury or burial.
  • Auto-Owners - Coverage is for cats and dogs only. $750 for injury or burial per animal or $1,500 per incident.
  • Erie - Coverage is for dogs and cats only. Up to two pets per claim. $500 each for medical care or $1,000 per loss.
  • Progressive - Coverage is for dogs and cats only. $1000 per loss for medical care or burial. Coverage also extends to boats and RVs. Dogs and cats of relatives that live with you are protected as well.
  • Chubb - Coverage extends coverage to all pets except animals used to generate income such as racing dogs or horses. $2,000 for injury or death.
  • Safeco - Coverage is for dogs and cats only. $500 for injury or death.

While pet coverage is a great perk, Gusner says, it's shouldn't be a deciding factor when you comparison shop for car insurance. (See "Pocket $1,102 just by shopping around.")

"The difference in rates between companies can be hundreds or even thousands of dollars," Gusner says. "You might be able to buy separate pet insurance with the savings and have money left over."

According to Dr. Jules Benson of Petplan Pet Insurance, pet insurance covers treatment for all accidental injuries including those sustained in car accidents, as well as illnesses.

Costs vary by pet age and size and the deductible you choose; $8,000 in coverage for an 8-year-old Lab would run about $42 a month.

Keeping your best friend safe

The best way to keep your pet safe is to use a harness or crate when rolling with your pet. Experts recommend crating dogs or cats and putting them in the rear cargo area. In smaller cars, buckling them up in the backseat using a harness is the safest way to travel.

Harnesses are widely available and are priced from $15 and up depending on the pet size.

Dog trainer and pet expert Amy Robinson offers a few do's and don'ts for keeping your pet safe while in the car:

Do:

  • Measure your dog for a cushioned, well-fitted car harness.
  • Use treats to entice the dog to put his head through the harness.
  • Go on a short walk wearing the harness to let him get used it.
  • Use a crate as an alternative, but secure it in the car.

Don't:

  • Feed your dog a big meal just before departing.
  • Put a dog unrestrained in the front seat, air bags can injury pets.
  • Allow the dog to sit on your lap. This can be a huge distraction.
  • Tie your dog down using his leash and collar.
  • Roll the window all the way down. This is an accident waiting to happen.
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