Buckling up your dog or cat next frontier in safety, $1,000 traffic tickets

There's no activity many dogs love more than hanging their head out an open car window, but a recent revelation of a New Jersey law that makes having an unbuckled pet in your car a violation carrying up to a $1,000 fine has opened a fresh debate about how humans should drive with their best friends.

The New Jersey law appears to be the only one of its kind in the nation that explicitly requires restraining a dog or cat at all times while in a moving vehicle. A few other states have passed laws barring animals from riding in the back of pickup trucks, and three states bar drivers from letting pets ride on their laps, citing the potential for driver distraction.

Officers from the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals can monitor for infractions during traffic stops or seat-belt campaigns, and issue tickets with fines ranging from $250 up to $1,000 for each unrestrained animal in a vehicle. Under the 16-year-old law, letting a pet ride unrestrained amounts to animal cruelty if the driver gets into a crash.

"Some people tell us they like to let their pets hang their heads out the window to take in the fresh air," NJSPCA superintendent Col. Frank Rizzo told The Bergen Record last week during a press conference to raise awareness of the law, "but dogs and cats become projectiles in a crash." Rizzo told WFMY-TV that while dogs are the most common unrestrained pet, other cases have involved birds on drivers' shoulder or cats sleeping on the dashboard.

Many animal advocates have advised pet owners to restrain their traveling companions for years, and there's a healthy market for adapters and even special booster seats to buckle dogs into seat belts. (Cats, being cats, are mostly stuck riding in pet carriers, which also have to be buckled down under New Jersey law). A survey by AAA last year found that while 60 percent of drivers have driven with their dogs, and 83 percent recognize them as a potential distraction, only 16 percent used some kind of pet restraint. AAA recommended pet owners use restraints every time they drive -- and with several states considering laws like New Jersey's, letting your dog feel the wind on its tongue could come at a high price.