How Safe Are Some of Today’s Car Harnesses for Dogs?

Crash testing by Subaru and the Center for Pet Safety in 2013 found that nearly all fared poorly. Two manufacturers have taken the results and made improvements.

Last Updated on May 13, 2015 by Wendy Newell

Last year, I was in a car accident. Hit and run. My car was totaled. I was VERY lucky to have walked away with nothing more than a concussion. I’m a dog sitter and transport pups, including my own, in a vehicle every day. Post-crash, while I was on the shoulder waiting for the police, all I could think was, “Thank goodness the dogs weren’t with me.”

I have always been an advocate for doggie car restraints, but even I was getting a bit lax about using them. I was piling pups on top of pups into my car and just assuming that all would be okay. It would have been a much different outcome had the dogs been with me when my car (going about 70 mph) was rear-ended (by a car going about 90 mph) and put into a spin on the freeway. I could have been hurt very badly, even killed, by the force of a flying pup, and the pups could have suffered substantial or even fatal injuries.

The scary facts

  • An unrestrained 10-pound dog in a crash at 50 mph will exert roughly 500 pounds of force.*
  • An unrestrained 80-pound dog in a crash at only 30 mph will exert approximately 2,400 pounds of force.*
  • The front airbag system in a vehicle can be deadly during a crash to a dog sitting in the front seat, even if restrained, just as it can be to children.
  • An unrestrained dog can easily jump out of a vehicle. After an accident, when everything is chaotic and the driver is agitated or hurt, a normally well-behaved dog could panic and run.
  • An unrestrained dog can make it harder for first responders to do their job, which may include helping you and your dog.
  • Although it may not be illegal to drive with an unrestrained dog where you live, a pet in your lap or one taking away your focus can result in a citation for “driving distracted.”

Safe ride for our babies

Cars were not built to offer a safe ride for dogs. They weren’t even built as a safe ride for babies and young children, which is why we strap them into car seats, which limits their mobility, has been extensively tested per government standards, and is required before you drive away from the hospital with a newborn. Our furry babies, on the other hand, often roam around our vehicles or sit, unrestrained, sometimes with their head out the window. We don’t put our children’s life at risk while in a vehicle. Why do we do it to our other babies, our dogs?

In 2013, Subaru of America partnered with the Center for Pet Safety (CPS), a nonprofit research and advocacy organization dedicated to companion animal and consumer safety, to test the crashworthiness of current dog car restraints available to consumers. Their results should be shocking to people like me who had been buckling up their dog for years. The tests uncovered serious flaws in most marketed pet restraint systems at the time. Only one restraint, Sleepypod’s Clikit Utility, earned the title of a Top Performing Harness because it:

  • Prevented the launch of the dog off of the seat for all three harness sizes tested
  • Substantially reduced rotation of the test dog during testing
  • Offers a three-point connection, improving the overall functional behavior of the harness

Be an educated and responsible consumer

“It’s all about money,” Lindsey Wolko, founder of CPS, explains when discussing the current state of the dog car-restraint industry. “We see on every level, whether it’s a well-known brand or whether it’s a private label, we see manufacturers lying to consumers, misrepresenting the safety of the product.”

Wolko is very passionate about this topic due to a personal experience. A short stop with her pup, Maggie, “buckled in” using what was called a “dog-restrained harness,” left Maggie with very serious and costly injuries. “I don’t know why pet owners aren’t screaming. It’s frustrating to me and other advocates that are out there, who are working very hard to make pet owners aware.”

A few companies have taken notice and aim to provide a new generation of car restraints. To build the Clickit Utility, Michael Leung, owner of Sleepypod, and his team did extensive research. About taking that first step to bring a safe car restraint for dogs to the market, Leung explains, “It is a big challenge to design something that will protect your dog. It is an unknown expense. You can be working for years and years, and you might not have anything. That’s the risk we took.”

During testing, it became clear to the people at Sleepypod that a dog required a three-point restraint system to stay seated with his bottom in the chair and his upper body restrained, all while using metal clasps strong enough to stand the stress and pressure of a crash. With traditional restraints, the dog would become unseated or even completely torn from the attachment to the seat. The traditional restraint may keep the dog from becoming a deadly projectile and help prevent driver distraction, but there is a very good chance the dog would be injured.

For Clickit Utility to have a three-point restraint, the Sleepypod team designed a harness that didn’t just utilize the car’s seat belt but also used the child seat LATCH anchors to hold the dog in place from each side. Although effective in testing, the harness requires the dog’s owner to latch in those three places each time the dog gets in the car.

Leung and his team wanted the next generation of their Clickit harness to be easier for the consumer to use. The team went back to the drawing board and worked hard to find a way to keep a three-point restraint system but to allow for the seatbelt to be the only connection to the car and not put any stress on the metal/plastic clasps and rings. Relaying on an innovative webbing design which they named the Infinity Loop, the Clickit Sport was born!

Sleepypod gave my dog, Riggins, a Clickit Sport to try. Riggins now wears it every time he gets into the car. I appreciate its ease of use and that it has Center for Pet Safety certification.

After the 2013 testing with Subaru, the center rolled out a voluntary certification program for dog car restraint manufacturers. Currently the only product that has been tested and achieved certification is the Clickit Sport. Since the company’s Utility model had already passed the 2013 crash testing, the company did not have it certified.

Sleepypod isn’t the only company that has recently redesigned its product, though. After seeing how its dog harnesses performed in the 2013 crash testing, Solvit Products started extensive testing to strengthen its restraint.

Patrick Hoffman, owner and president of Solvit Products, explains, “There is quite a bit of engineering that goes into it [designing a harness]. We might have spent $50,000 on testing. We went through many many iterations of redesign on this product to get the strength higher.”

Hoffman points out that the safest way for your dog to travel in the vehicle is in a travel crate tethered to the floorboard. If that isn’t possible, then the harness-style restraint is the next best thing. Solvit’s Deluxe Car Seat Harness allows for different levels of safety based on an owner’s overall goal. If the consumer wants to go beyond restraining for driver distraction, they can add a three point attachment accessory for a safer ride for their pup. A crash test video of a 75-pound dummy dog using the Deluxe Car Seat Harness with the LATCH attachments, which are sold separately, on each side of the dog can be found on the company’s website.

No more excuses

Both Solvit and Sleepypod have stories of customers who have called to tell them about an accident they have been in and to thank them for their products keeping their dogs safe. Leung tells a story of a client who was in a collision, resulting in the driver spending weeks in the hospital recovering from her injuries. The dog in the car, wearing a Clickit Utility, had no injuries from the crash and got an all clear from the vet after the incident.

When asked why the adoption of pet car restraints isn’t more widespread, Hoffman suggests that consumers can be slow in adapting safety measures in the car. He equates it to the restraining of children while driving. “It took quite a long time for that [child restraint] mentality to change. Now I wouldn’t get out of the driveway without the kids buckled in.”

He continues, “It’s just a mentality that has changed with people and their children in the last generation. The whole concept of pets as people is a growing trend and that [car safety] aspect of it has just lagged for some reason, but it [a change in consumer thought] is coming.”

Wolko of CPS points out that the cost of a harness is far less than that of a hurt dog’s vet bill. “When you evaluate the cost of injury, if your dog is even in a short stop — I mean, I just slammed on the breaks to avoid an accident, and I saw what I paid for Maggie’s bills. It far exceeded the cost of a Sleepypod harness.”

She continues, “You are talking hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars if your dog is injured. Your dog could be killed. Someone in your family can be hurt.”

When looking for the best product for the safety of your pet, remember to do your research. Check out resources like the Center for Pet Safety’s website and follow manufacturer’s guidelines on what type of restraint (harness or carrier) will work best based on your dog’s size and weight.

* AAA and Krugo’s 2011 survey

Read more by Wendy Newell:

About the author: Wendy Newell is a former VP of Sales turned Grade A Dog Sitter. After years of stress, she decided to leave the world of “always be closing” to one of tail wags and licks. Wendy’s new career keeps her busy hiking, being a dog chauffeur, picking up poop, sacrificing her bed, and with other furry filled activities. Wendy and her dog, Riggins, take their always-changing pack of pups on adventures throughout the Los Angeles area, where they live together in a cozy, happy home. You can learn more about Wendy, Riggins, and their adventures on Facebook and Instagram.

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