Pet Safety in the Car

Animal Safety in Cars

As an engineer who deals with occupant safety in vehicles, I occasionally get asked questions related to vehicle pet safety. Earlier this year, the topic gained attention when a Maine state legislator introduced a bill to require dogs to be harnessed or tethered in a moving vehicle. The bill was later withdrawn, but the questions remain. Some states have laws on the books to address issues with drivers who operate their vehicles with a dog on their lap. Frequently, this is related to the risk of the dog distracting the driver or interfering with the operation of the vehicle. A 2012 New Jersey law makes it illegal to transport an animal in “a cruel or inhumane manner”; however, this has led to many questions as to what constitutes “a cruel or inhumane manner”. Only Hawaii prohibits driving with a dog that is free to move about the vehicle.

When asked about the safety of using a harness to restrain dogs in a vehicle, the initial response is to ask whose safety they are concerned with, as the answer can be different. There are many different animal restraints on the market, and prices vary widely. If the concern is preventing the animal from being able to climb up into the front seat, distract the driver or interfere with operation of the vehicle, just about any of the systems will serve that purpose. If the concern is to prevent a dog from falling or jumping out of a car window, there are fewer capable of that task; many systems though can keep Fido from exiting the vehicle. The real issues arise when the question is the ability of the pet restraint to function properly in the event of a crash.

There are two factors related to harnesses. The first is the ability of the harness to prevent the animal from becoming a projectile and striking other occupants. This is a relatively simple issue; the harness just needs to be capable of limiting movement of the body of the pet and carrying the crash loads from the weight of the pet. In 2013, the Center for Pet Safety (CPS) tested several harnesses which claimed to offer crash protection to pets. Their focus was on the integrity of the harness during the test, and the ability of the harness to limit the head excursion of the test dogs. Most of the harnesses tested by the CPS were not capable of keeping the test dogs on the seat. Many of the harnesses had components or were assembled in a way which made them incapable of remaining together and able to transfer the crash forces to the vehicle. They allowed the test dogs to have excessive motion; in a real vehicle, this would have allowed them to impact other occupants or the interior of the vehicle.

The second, and more difficult factor, is the ability of the harness to protect the pet from injury. To protect the restrained pet, the system must not only be able to carry the crash loads, but also apply those loads to the animal in a way which will not cause injury. Just as with people, this means the restraint forces must be distributed over as wide of an area of the animal’s body as possible, and the harness loads must be applied to the strong, bony parts of the animal’s body. One of the more difficult items to control is how these loads are applied to the body. With adults, we have some basic expectations of how they will or should be sitting in a car. For young children, we try to limit or control the child’s position with the use of a child seat with a harness. For an animal, the task is more difficult, and their initial position can vary widely unless the harness controls or limits their ability to move. Additionally, there are issues with being able to measure and compare forces in the body of the animal with their tolerance to injury.

Another issue causing so much confusion with pet restraints is the lack of regulations. While many manufacturers make claims that their products offer crash protection, when the CPS tested the products, most did not deliver an acceptable level of protection. Pet restraints are not regulated by the government. In fact, the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have both stated pet restraints do not fall under their jurisdiction.

So, do you think you can avoid all this confusion, skip using a harness and just place your pet in the pet carrier you have been using for years? Not quite. In the CPS testing, many of the pet carriers tested structurally failed and allowed the test dogs to be ejected from the carrier. The test results for crates were somewhat better in that most were able to keep the test dogs contained in the crates. However, some still had issues with remaining attached to the vehicle.
All that being said, what is the best way to restrain your pet in the car? The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends you consider if you really need to take your pet with you in the car. If they really don’t need to go with you, then leave your pet safely at home.

If your pet must join you in the car, based on the available information, your best option is to purchase a harness, carrier or crate that has been crash tested and shown to have the ability to remain intact, and limit the motion of the animal during a crash.

Additional Resources: The Ultimate Guide To Moving Long Distance With Pets

Child Seat Cold Weather Safety

John R. Yannaccone, PE, Senior Mechanical Engineer ::::
As the weather starts to turn cooler, the need to add layers to keep warm begins. However, everyone needs to make sure the added layers do not compromise safety. This is especially true when it comes to children who are in child seats. While we all want our children to stay warm during a car ride, we need to be sure we are doing it in a safe way.
One of the major problems seen is dressing children in bulky or puffy coats. As the general rule, bulky coats should not be worn under the harness of a child seat. These coats prevent the harness from being tightened to the child’s body and compromise the safety of the child seat by reducing the effectiveness of the harness.
Frequently, the next question people ask is, “How do I know if my child’s coat is too bulky?”
There is a simple test you can perform to see if your child’s coat is bulky, and will cause the harness to be less effective. Start by putting your child’s coat on them, place them in their child seat, and tighten the harness. A properly tightened harness is one that you cannot pinch the harness webbing between your fingers.
Next, without loosening the harness adjustor(s), unbuckle the harness and take your child out of the child seat. Take your child’s coat off and place them back into the child seat and buckle the harness without adjusting the straps. Try and pinch the webbing as you did before. Is there more slack than there was when your child had their coat on? If so, the coat is too bulky to wear under the harness. The slack you see is what would be seen in a crash when the puffiness of the coat is compressed by the forces of the crash, and would reduce how well the harness restrains your child.
So how do you keep your child warm in the car if they have a coat that is too bulky to wear under the harness? Following are some options:

  • See if you can find a less bulky coat, i.e. a thinner fabric like an insulated sweatshirt or fleece coat which can provide warmth without bulk.
  • Have your child remove their bulky jacket before they get in the child seat. After harnessing them in, cover them with a blanket. This is a good method if you are using a carrier style child seat since you can harness the child in and cover them with a blanket before going outside.
  • Rather than a blanket, you can also place the child’s coat on them backwards after they are harnessed into the child seat. In this case, the coat serves as a blanket with arms.

Remember, no matter which of these options you choose, harnessing a child too loosely in their child seat is one of the most common errors made. Leaving slack in the harness will increase the movement of a child in a crash, and can even allow them to be ejected from the child seat. You still need to tighten the harness so you cannot pinch the webbing. Taking these steps will help keep your children warm and safe during your travels in colder weather.
John R. Yannaccone, PE, Senior Mechanical Engineer with DJS Associates Inc., can be reached via email at experts@forensicDJS.com or via phone at 215-659-2010.

Child Seat Safety

Child Car Safety

John R. Yannaccone, PE, Senior Mechanical Engineer ::::
Case Synopsis: A vehicle was entering an intersection when a pickup made a left turn across its path. The front of the car impacted the passenger side of the pickup and then came to rest in the intersection. The impacting car had three occupants, two adults and a young child. When the police arrived on the scene, the mother was holding an unconscious child. The parents reported their child was in his rear facing infant seat at the time of the impact; however, the mother took him out following the collision. The child was taken to the hospital where he later died as the result of blunt head trauma.
Expert Analysis: The collision was a minor to moderate impact in which a child, properly restrained in a child seat, should not have experienced any serious or fatal injuries. The parents, who reported they were not wearing their seatbelts, sustained only minor bumps and bruises in the collision.
The vehicle and the child seat were inspected. It was observed that the seatbelt was securing the child seat in the car, and the harness used to secure the child was loaded. However, the harness was routed through the child seat using a path for a much larger child, and the harness was adjusted to the maximum length. Both of these pieces of evidence were inconsistent with the small size of the child and would result in a harness that would be extremely loose on such a small child. During the inspection, the car seat cover/pad was removed and revealed a large towel which was folded and placed under the cover. When asked, the parents stated that the harness was very loose on the child so they placed the towel under the child in order to make the harness fit better. Continue reading “Child Seat Safety”

Hitching a Ride on the Lift!

John R. Yannaccone, PE, Senior Mechanical Engineer ::::
Case Synopsis: Two painters were operating a telescopic boom lift on a commercial building construction site. The painters were about to break for lunch when a repairman, also working on the roof, asked the painters for a ride to the ground so he wouldn’t need to go to the other side of the building and descend a ladder. The lift operator moved the platform into position so the repairman could climb onto the lift platform. When the repairman climbed on, the lift began to tip over causing the repairman, and the painters, to fall to the ground. The repairman sustained serious injuries while the painters sustained only minor injuries.
Expert Analysis: Analysis in this case revealed the weight of the two painters and their equipment was within the safe load limits for the full operational range of the lift. The two painters were wearing proper fall protection harnesses attached to designated anchor points inside the lift. When the repairman entered the lift, the additional weight exceeded the safe operating capacity of the lift at the extended position, and then tipped over. Continue reading “Hitching a Ride on the Lift!”

Child Safety Seat Fails to Deliver Safety

John R. Yannaccone, PE, Senior Mechanical Engineer ::::
Case Synopsis: A vehicle stopped at a red light was struck from behind by another vehicle. The impacted vehicle had three adult occupants, and a child harnessed into a rear facing infant seat. During the crash, it was reported that the carrier portion of the infant seat (with the child in it) separated from the installed base. As a result, the child and the carrier moved inside the vehicle and the child struck their head and sustained skull fractures with an underlying brain injury. None of the other occupants had any serious injuries.
Expert Analysis: At the time the expert was retained, both vehicles were no longer available; however, there were sufficient photographs for a reconstruction to determine this was a moderate severity collision. The child seat was available for inspection and there were generally no signs of any substantial loading to the base or the carrier, which is consistent with it not being restrained during the crash. There were some areas of minor material deformation in an area that should not have been loaded.
The mother testified she installed the child seat, and the carrier was latched into the base on the day of the incident. She had no idea why the carrier would not have been attached to the base at the time of the collision.
An exemplar child seat, the same design as the one in the crash, was used for an analysis and showed that the carrier was misaligned with the base. It was possible to have the attachment hooks contact the area, not intended for latching, which showed the minor deformation. If this occurred, it would appear to the user that the carrier was latched to the base, and capable of taking the type of loads a parent would apply to verify the base and the carrier were attached; however, it would be unable to carry the loads of even a moderate crash.
By making very minor modifications to the carrier, this additional location where the attachment hooks could improperly attach could have been eliminated. This would leave only the appropriate locations for the hooks to engage thereby preventing the risk of a false latching between the carrier and base from occurring.
Result: A case was pursued against the child seat manufacturer for the design of the child seat, which allowed the carrier to be installed in this improper position such that it was unable to sustain the loads of a crash. The case settled prior to trial.
John R. Yannaccone, PE is a Senior Mechanical Engineer with DJS Associates and can be reached via email at experts@forensicDJS.com, via phone at 215-659-2010 or via www.mechanicalengineeringexpert.com.

Lawn Mower Safety

Lawn Mower Safety

John R. Yannaccone, PE, Senior Mechanical Engineer ::::
Case Synopsis: A landscaper was operating a commercial riding mower at an industrial plant early one morning. The ground was covered in dew resulting in a slippery terrain. As the worker was cutting the lawn, he proceeded down a hill, was unable to stop, and slid into the side of a building. Due to the wet ground and the incline, he was unable to back the mower up from the building. At that point he dismounted the mower and attempted to pull it away from the wall so he would be able to drive again. While attempting to move the mower, the worker slipped, entangled his foot under the mower deck resulting in a partial amputation.
Expert Analysis: According to the operator’s manual for the mower, there were several interlocks, or safeties, which should have prevented the mower blades from operating after dismounting the mower. The system should turn off the mower’s engine if the blades were still engaged, or the parking brake was not set when the operator removed his weight from the seat. The manufacturer had performance requirements on how quickly the engine was required to stop after weight was removed from the seat. There was also a recommendation that the seat interlock be checked weekly to confirm it operated properly by shutting down the mower if weight was removed from the seat. Continue reading “Lawn Mower Safety”

Bunk Beds And Kid’s Play

John R. Yannaccone, PE, Mechanical Engineer ::::
Case Synopsis: An 8-year-old boy, and his friend, climbed to the top of a bunk bed to play a game. Shortly after checking on the boys, the homeowner reported hearing a loud noise, followed by a child’s scream. Upon entering the room, she found her son climbing down from the top bunk, the friend on the floor, unresponsive, lying on top of the guard rail of the bunk bed.
Expert Analysis: Examination of the bunk beds revealed that the guardrails consisted of single pieces of 1 x 4 inch wood. They sat into a pocket with approximately 1 ½ inch engagement on each end of the guard rail. The guardrails were sufficient in length to fully engage the pocket. There was no damage to the guardrails, nor was there any indication that the guard rails had been bent and forced between the head and foot boards of the bunk bed. The guardrails sat loosely in the pocket and were not fastened or attached to the end structure of the bed. Continue reading “Bunk Beds And Kid’s Play”

Spring Tree-Trimming Results in Injury

Photograph is from NIOSH report F2012-04 Date Released: August 20, 2012

John R. Yannaccone, PE, Senior Mechanical Engineer ::::
Case Synopsis: A homeowner rented a towable boom lift to assist with the removal of branches that overhung his house. After beginning removal of the limbs, the homeowner realized that as he cut the branches from the tree, they were dropping onto his roof and rain gutters. In order to prevent damage to his roof and gutters, he decided to tie the branches to the platform rails prior to cutting them from the tree. This was effective for a short period of time in preventing limbs from falling onto his house. After cutting a number of branches, which were all tied to the platform railing, the homeowner cut another branch and the lift began to tip over and came to rest against the side of the house. The homeowner fell to the ground and sustained serious injuries.
Expert Analysis: At the time of renting the boom lift, the homeowner was instructed he was not to have more than two people on the platform at one time and he was to operate the lift only on level ground. Other than those warnings, and some basic instructions on the use of the boom lift controls, he received no other safety instructions for the lift. He was able to use the lift safely for a period of time until the branches continued to increase the load on the platform. When the additional weight of the branches exceeded the tipping point the lift, it proceeded to tip over. The subject lift was equipped with a tilt alarm warning system, which appeared to be operational. Reports of responders following the fall indicated hearing a buzzer and seeing the tip over warning lamp lit on the lift. Continue reading “Spring Tree-Trimming Results in Injury”

You Just Got a Call About a Child Injured in a Crash, What is Next?

John R. Yannaccone, PE, Sr. Mechanical Engineer ::::
You just got a call from a parent that they were involved in a collision and, as a result, their young child was injured. What important steps should you take?
1. Secure the evidence – both the vehicle and the child seat
2. Get the make, model and date of manufacture of the child seat
3. Photograph any marks on the child’s body
4. Get accurate height and weight for the child
One of the most important steps to take is to immediately secure the evidence. In a case involving a child who was riding in a child seat, in addition to the vehicle, it is also very important to secure the child seat. If the child seat is still installed in the vehicle, take photographs to document how it is installed and how the harness is adjusted. If the child seat is no longer installed in the vehicle, it is best to secure the car seat by taking custody of it to prevent it from becoming separated from a vehicle you do not control. If the seat is not with the vehicle, check with the hospital or in other vehicles involved in the crash. In some cases, children are removed from a vehicle and transported to the hospital in the child seat. In these cases, the child seat will likely end up at the hospital and may be delivered to the parent’s or child’s hospital room or, if not secured quickly, discarded. If possible, have the client place the car seat in a safe location so that it remains available to be inspected. It is also very helpful to know the make and model of the child seat at the time of the initial call. This information, as well as the date of manufacture is always found on the car seat label. If possible, photograph the label. Continue reading “You Just Got a Call About a Child Injured in a Crash, What is Next?”