Free ride or die? A New Hampshire bill to restrict pets in cars is starting a fight

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New Hampshire is the only state that allows adults to drive without seat belts. Want to use your dog instead? Go ahead, for now.

Although the state currently has no pet dog laws, the Legislature is considering a bill that would make it illegal for someone to drive with “an animal of any size on their person.” The proposal is likely a long-term plan in the “Live Free or Die” state, but it’s causing a lot of debate.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think this would become one of the most controversial bills of the session, but by God, here we are,” said sponsor, state Rep. Jennifer Rhodes.

Rhodes, a Republican from Winchester, drafted the bill after seeing a young girl nearly hit by a car driven by a man who was holding two small dogs with one hand and petting them with the other. When her rage subsided, she decided to take action.

“I had a golden opportunity to make a positive difference, so I did,” she said. “I thought it was pointless.”

But when word got out, angry emails poured in. One writer, whom Rhodes declined to identify, argued that a well-behaved puppy would be less of a distraction than an animal whining from the back seat.

“If I’m taking my sick dog (or cat, or other pet) to the vet for medical attention or to be euthanized, you can bet that I will (and have) held that animal on my lap for that eventual last trip with them” , the person writes. “Please stay out of people’s cars and let people have a little bit of happiness in the sanctity of their own vehicles.”

Hawaii is the only state that specifically prohibits drivers from keeping animals on their laps, Rhodes said, although such drivers can be charged under broader distracted driving laws in multiple states. Rhode Island requires pets in vehicles to be restrained or under the physical control of someone other than the driver, while in New Jersey pets in moving vehicles must be secured in a carrier or wear seat belts. New Hampshire’s bill, which subjects violators to $100 fines, doesn’t go that far.

“If you want your dog to be in the back seat with his head out the window, great. Want your dog in the passenger seat there with you? This is great. All we’re trying to do is say the dog shouldn’t be on you at all,” Rhodes said.

The bill has the support of Cheshire County Sheriff Eli Rivera, who told the state House Transportation Committee last week that he has seen drivers with dogs of all shapes and sizes on their laps.

“I’ve seen dogs running back and forth between the front and back seats, looking out one window, looking out the other window. I have seen drivers holding a pet with their left hand and trying to look over the dog while driving on the road,” he said. “It does create a danger.”

Maria Doval of Hopkinton said she would follow the law if it were changed, but for now she allows her dog to ride on her lap to his checkups and vet appointments, plus weekly trips to doggy day care. Pancho, a 7-pound Maltese Shih Tzu with extreme separation anxiety, hates the car but stays calm if Doval holds his seatbelt tight while she drives.

“He’s literally just looking out the window from my lap,” she said. “He’s not free roaming because I think it could be a distraction.”

Although Rhodes said she’s faced pushback from people “who really don’t want to be told what to do” in general, she said most of the opposition comes from people who genuinely love their pets .

“They think I’m somehow punishing them when I don’t see it as a punishment in any way, shape or form,” Rhodes said. “I look at it as pet safety.”

Copyright 2023 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or distributed.

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