CHICAGO — Proposed legislation would make it illegal in Illinois for dogs to get behind the wheel of a car.
Dogs in the driver's seat — on their owners' laps — is a dangerous but common habit, said state Rep. Dan Burke (D-Chicago), co-sponsor of the bill.
"Because I travel, I can't help but observe the number of people with dogs on their laps," he said. "It is a public safety concern. If a driver is distracted, certainly it would be a risk to other motorists on the road."
Under the proposed law, getting caught with a pet in the driver's seat would carry a $25 fine, though a motorist couldn't get pulled over unless committing another driving violation.
For now, however, it seems lap dogs will have their day. Though it cleared a transportation committee, the legislation faces overwhelming opposition as it heads to the House floor, said bill co-sponsor, Rep. Dan Beiser (D-Alton).
Burke said the bill is on the back burner most likely because of "more serious issues in peoples' minds," like Illinois' financial crisis.
"This is, unfortunately, the worst time in our state's history," Burke said. "It's a matter of prioritizing. ... Everything is timing."
Burke is hopeful Illinois will bans dogs on drivers' laps. New Jersey and Hawaii have laws against pooches behind the wheel, and distracted driver laws in Arizona, Maine and Connecticut can be used to prosecute the offense.
In a 2010 AAA survey, 65 percent of dog owners admitted to engaging in a potentially distracting activity, such as petting, feeding or snapping a photo, while driving with their dog.
An unrestrained 10-pound dog in a 50-mile-per-hour crash exerts about 500 pounds of force, according to AAA.
That kind of force could cause serious damage to the human and animal passengers.
Max, a 10-year-old, 12-pound miniature pinscher, was injured when he "went flying" in an accident, said owner Melissa Ramirez, a Logan Square resident who testified before the House Transportation Committee.
Joe Ramirez, Melissa's husband, was driving with Max unrestrained in the front seat when his car was "T-boned" by a driver running a red light at Sacramento Avenue and the Eisenhower Expy.
Max was thrown, hitting Joe in the neck and landing near the gas pedal. The dog was paralyzed, and Joe Ramirez needed back surgery several months later.
Cruising with pooches is a growing trend in Chicago, a dog-friendly city with many shops, restaurants and parks that allow canines, Melissa Ramirez said.
"The days of people taking their dogs to the vet once a year are gone," she said. "There's a need for laws to catch up with trends into daily and weekly travel."
Burke travels often with his dog from Chicago to Springfield — but his 120-pound giant schnauzer is restrained in the back seat.
"He would certainly prefer to be in the front seat, but that’s not happening," Burke said.
Although she'd like to see a bill that requires dogs to be fully restrained like Burke's, not just prohibited from riding in a driver's lap, Ramirez knows changing the trend will take "baby steps."
"It is the most dangerous when a dog is on your lap," she said.
Ramirez said she hears from lobbyists for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that the current bill isn't getting killed in the House, but being rewritten to include crate or seat belt requirements for traveling pets.
After what happened to Max, Ramirez set out to make dog car safety as basic as leash-walking and potty-training.
So she started a business that sells dog sea belts at mydoggieseatbelt.com, starting at about $20.
Max can walk again after surgeries and physical therapy. But he can't leave behind his limp from that 2008 accident.
"The emotional piece is awful, but also the financial hit we took. ... It was more than $12,000" for all of Max's medical bills, Ramirez said. "I don’t want anyone else to go through something like that when it's preventable."