Pets Prove Dangerous Distraction for Elderly Drivers
According to a new study conducted by the University of Alabama-Birmingham, pets have proven themselves to be a significant distraction amongst older drivers.
According to a new study conducted by the University of Alabama-Birmingham, pets have proven themselves to be a significant distraction amongst older drivers. The study questioned 2,000 drivers ages 70 and over not living in assisted living or retirement homes, including 691 who with pets, asking them to describe their daily driving habits, and the kinds of behaviors they considered unsafe. “This is the first study to evaluate the presence of pets in a vehicle as a potential internal distraction for elderly drivers,” says Gerald McGwin, a professor in the Department of Epidemiology at UAB and co-author of the study.
Results showed that, for elderly drivers who frequently drove with their pets in the car, accident rates were twice as high as those who did not bring their pets with them. Those who drove with their pets on rare occasion had a crash rate consistent with those who did not drive with their pets at all. This poses a serious safety threat for older drivers, as more than half of pet owners questioned brought their four legged friends with them as they drove. Interestingly, 83% of participants agreed that traveling with an unrestrained pet in the car was dangerous, but just 16% used a safety restraint intended specifically for their pets. Of those who travel with pets, most allowed them to sit in the front passenger seat or back seat without restraint.
Though rarely mentioned alongside distractions like cell phone and entertainment center usage, dealing with an unwieldy pet has the potential to pull a driver’s focus, particularly an older driver, away from the road. “Adding another distracting element, especially an active, potentially moving animal, provides more opportunity for an older driver to respond to a driving situation in a less than satisfactory way,” says McGwin. “The increased crash rate for elderly drivers who always drive with bets is important in the context of increasing driver awareness about potentially dangerous driving habits.”
The danger, says the study’s conclusion, lies with the added cognitive stress introduced by pets, which can overwhelm older drivers. Pets themselves to not interfere with the operation of a vehicle, but keeping them still and under control can require a level of attention not possible without sacrificing focus from the road ahead. Confounding the potential dangers is an inconsistent set of laws governing pets in cars. Some states have specific limitations, like Hawaii, which bans drivers from having a pet in their lap, though most have only vague guidelines concerning distracting behaviors, which in some cases could include pets. Without a standardized system, it is difficult for drivers to understand what is and is not permissible.
Distracted driving has become one of the largest killers on the road today. In 2012, 10% of all highway accident fatalities were caused by drivers not focused on the task of driving. While cell phones and other personal electronic devices have gotten much of the distraction attention, there are a number of other dangers, including letting a pet roam through the vehicle. When behind the wheel, your primary responsibility should be on keeping safe, being watchful of what is around you, and avoiding accidents. As research continues to uncover some of the largest distractions for drivers, there is hope that awareness will increase, leading to fewer accidents and saving more lives.
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