Aristide Economopoulos/The Star-LedgerA dog rides in an SUV while traveling east bound on Route 10 in Livingston. this photo was taken on an iPhone using the Hipstamatic app.
TRENTON — this one could have some Jersey canines howling with discontent.
If a lawmaker has her way, those carefree rides in cars with their heads out the window will be long gone. Instead, dogs — and cats — will have to be buckled up for safety, just like humans.
The measure is the brainchild of Assemblywoman Grace Spencer (D-Essex) who said she got the idea from a fourth-grade class at a Newark charter school and started pushing it after her veterinarian mentioned a small pooch who had broken a leg after its owner made a sudden stop.
If enacted, New Jersey would have the nation’s toughest seat belt law for pets.
But on the other paw, a group of Republican lawmakers has introduced another bill that would make sure dogs and cats can ride seat-belt free.
The competing proposals came about because New Jersey’s law on how drivers should transport their pets is vague.
Spencer believes the law isn’t tough enough. after she talked to the students, she moved her Teacup Pomeranian, AJ, from riding unharnessed in the front seat to buckled up in back.
“AJ got harnessed. He’s not happy, but he’s harnessed in the back seat,” she said. “I realize there are people that think that is going too far, but I’m optimistic it will move through the Assembly.”
Under the bill (A3221), drivers would get a $20 ticket and could also be convicted of an animal cruelty offense, which carries a civil penalty of $250 to $1,000. Pet car harnesses range in price from $12 to more than $40.
Star-Ledger file photo Grace Spencer (D-Essex) is shown in this file photo.
A group of Republican lawmakers led by Assemblyman Jay Webber, however, say the existing pet transportation law may be too tough. They’ve introduced a bill clarifying that failure to buckle up animals is not cruel or inhumane.
According to the statute, it’s a disorderly persons offense to drive around pets “in a cruel or inhumane manner.” but it does not spell out what is considered cruel and inhumane.
Webber said he introduced his bill (A3182) after an official from the New Jersey SPCA warned at a press conference with the Motor Vehicle Commission that drivers who don’t buckle up their animals could face fines from $250 to $1,000 and up to six months in prison.
“I just thought that was outrageous,” said Webber (R-Morris), who added that a local pet shop used the comments to advertise pet harnesses. “No one has ever interpreted it that way. and now there are hundreds of thousands of pet owners in the state who are now confused whether they have to restrain their pets while driving around.”
But Tim Martin, a spokesman for the New Jersey SPCA, called the remark an “unscripted moment” and said the group, which is allowed to enforce animal protection laws, does not target drivers who leave their pets unbuckled. “The point we were trying to make is having Spot on your lap while you’re driving is dangerous to both you and the animal,” he said.
Martin said over the last six years his group investigated 21 cases of animals allegedly being transported in an unsafe way, about a quarter of which resulted in fines. but he noted these were for extreme cases, such as a dog riding on a motorcycle’s gas tank. he wouldn’t comment on Spencer’s bill but said the group does not view unbelted dogs and cats as animal cruelty.
No states have laws requiring animals be restrained inside a car, although a bill was introduced in Tennessee last year requiring it for animals in the front seat, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Cathleen Lewis, spokeswoman for AAA of New Jersey, said eight states — not including New Jersey — have laws requiring animals be restrained when in the beds of pick-up trucks.
The bill’s prospects are uncertain. in the upper house, state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) — who often proposes animal rights legislation — said he’s not into it.
“I have bigger fish to fry,” he said. “Actually, that’s a bad choice of words.”