Driving with pets – does your dog need to wear a seatbelt?

Digby Bodenham
1 June 2017 - 4 min read

It's easy to see how pets can distract drivers but it turns out over a third of people who travel with a pet in the car are unaware of laws about restraining animals while on the road, according to a survey by uSwitch.

Of people that do drive with their pets, uSwitch found 19% say they've failed to secure their pet properly and 21% have been distracted by their pet. And a shocking 21% of people who were distracted have had an accident or near miss because of their pets.

Pets and driving laws

Not securing your pet is clearly dangerous and against the law but it could also mean an insurance claim will be rejected if you do have an accident.

Car insurance policies may not specifically mention animals or pets in cars but if you're found to have broken the law behind the wheel you can invalidate your cover.

Check out our guide to the 10 best car insurance policies.

Aviva and LV=, two of our highest-rated companies, do not mention pets in their policy documents but if you're worried about what your policy covers it's worth contacting the insurer directly to discuss it with them.

Rule 57 in the Highway Code says: "When in a vehicle make sure dogs or other animals are suitably restrained so they cannot distract you while you are driving or injure you, or themselves if you stop quickly. A seat belt harness, pet carrier, dog cage or dog guard are ways of restraining animals in cars."

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USwitch's survey found 21% of people had been distracted by their pet while driving and of those, 40% said they’ve taken their eyes off the road.

Dogs are the most likely pet to be found in the passenger seat, with 70% of drivers saying they’ve travelled with their dog, but more than a third 37% have brought their cat along for a ride. Rabbits (8%), fish (6%) and parrots (2%) have also been given a lift and some people have even driven with a pet snake (1%) or spider (1%) in their car.

If you are thinking of driving with a pet in the car make sure you have the proper restraints, one of the easiest to use is a divider between the boot and the rest of the car. Being safe on the road is simple but as you'll see below it can be more complicated when you break down.

What happens when you break down with a pet in your car?

If you broke down with your dog in the car and required roadside assistance, what would happen to your pet? In November 2013, a tragic accident occurred on the M40 near Banbury, Oxfordshire. A broken down motorhome carrying 11 dogs and three people was awaiting recovery on the hard shoulder when a heavy goods vehicle collided with it. Some of the dogs escaped onto the road and three of them died at the scene; another was later euthanised by a vet due to the extent of his injuries. One human passenger required hospitalisation and treatment in intensive care while the other two were shaken up. The motorhome was at the side of the road for hours because it was waiting for a specialist vehicle to come and collect the dogs. This incident prompted the website Dogs in the News to advise its Twitter followers to switch cover if their roadside recovery policy didn’t make provisions for their animals. It received requests for specifics about which companies they should switch to, so the team started researching which companies are dog friendly.

Breakdown provider policies

Unfortunately, Dogs in the News couldn’t help its readers. ALL the major breakdown providers whose policy documents it read say exactly the same thing: IF they do decide to take your dogs, it’s at their discretion and your risk. That is to say, it entirely depends if the person who shows up likes dogs and is willing to accommodate them – hardly reassuring!

A few of the policies make exceptions for guide dogs or hearing dogs, but not for general assistance dogs, therapy dogs, medical alert dogs and the like, which is worrying. By law private hire drivers must accept a passenger with an accredited assistance dog at no extra cost on their fare, but it’s not clear if this covers roadside recovery vehicles. Other policies state that you have to pay any extra costs incurred when making arrangements for your dog.

What you can do if you breakdown is call your recovery service and be very clear about the details over the phone. Let them know that you have a pet with you and would like a pet-friendly driver. If you have an accredited assistance dog, make sure to stress that.

You might fare better if you have a dog cage or crate with you in case you get a driver who isn't a big fan of dogs and is worried about the laws about driving with pets or his or her car.

Seeing as most breakdown providers have said that it's at the discretion of the driver whether your pet is allowed with you in the car, doing everything you can to make your driver more willing to take your pet might improve the odds.

The RAC has detailed FAQ page on its website about pets and breakdowns.

Customer feedback

So that’s the ‘legal-ese’, but what about customer reviews? Dogs in the News asked if anyone could suggest a service that had made special arrangements for their dogs or which was willing to take dogs as a matter of service rather than because they were obliged to.

Unfortunately, the responses were too random to be useful. Some people sang the praises of helpful drivers who either took their dog or arranged alternative transport for them. However, others reported drivers who flat out refused to take the animals in any form, leaving them stranded, or forced the dog to travel in the owner’s vehicle while it was being towed, causing upset.

People also begrudged having to pay for extra services; they thought their cover applied to all passengers, human and canine, and expected all expenses to be included as part of their monthly fees.

Inform your breakdown service

Our advice is to make it very clear to your breakdown provider that you have a dog with you when you call to request their assistance. That way they know in advance and can either send out a specialist vehicle in the first instance or arrange for someone who doesn’t mind a bit of dog hair in their back seat.

But that is not an ideal solution. Dogs in the News received lots of comments from worried pet owners, dog show exhibitors and competitors saying they’d happily pay a higher premium for the peace of mind that comes from knowing their pets are covered in the event of an emergency.

It’s stressful enough having a mechanical issue and being stranded on the side of the road, without having to worry about how you’re going to get your dog safely home!

This article was written by ManyPets. We were not paid to write it but we will receive commission if clicking on a link to one of the named insurers results in a reader taking out a policy with that insurer. We also charge for advertising space so a particular insurer may be highlighted in the article and, where insurers are listed, it can dictate where they appear in the list.