SHARE 27 COMMENTMORE

(USA Today) - Not all driving distractions ring or beep. Some of them bark.

And so, animal protection and automobile safety officials nationwide are starting to unleash a new message: Restrain your pet on the road.

"You wouldn't put your child in the car unrestrained, so you shouldn't put your pet in the car unrestrained, either," says Col. Frank Rizzo, superintendent of the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NJSPCA).

In a 2010 survey by AAA, 20% of participants admitted to letting their dog sit on their lap while driving. A "staggering" 31% said they were distracted by their dog while driving, says Raymond Martinez, chairman of New Jersey's Motor Vehicle Commission.

"What people come to realize only too late is that animals act like flying missiles in an impact and can not only hurt themselves but hurt their human family members, too," Rizzo says.

Only a few states have passed legislation requiring animal restraints in moving vehicles, and in some of those states laws apply only to animals riding in the exterior of the vehicle, such as the bed of a pickup, according to AAA, formerly known as the American Automobile Association.

•In New Jersey, under state law, NJSPCA officers can stop a driver they believe is improperly transporting an animal. Tickets range from $250 to $1,000 per offense, and a driver can face a disorderly person's offense under animal-cruelty laws.

•Hawaii explicitly forbids drivers from holding a pet on their lap. In Arizona, Connecticut and Maine, distracted-driving laws can be used to charge drivers with pets on their laps.

•In Rhode Island, Democratic state Rep. Peter Palumbo has proposed legislation to make having a dog in your lap a distracted-driving violation after a complaint from someone who witnessed a driver, whose view was blocked by a lap dog, change lanes.

"Pet restraint is a somewhat emerging issue," AAA spokeswoman Heather Hunter says. "While some states do have legislation in place, there is much more to be done regarding tracking of these laws, filling gaps in states that do not yet have laws and education on the importance of restraining pets in moving vehicles, to protect the pet and all family members."

Numerous types of restraints are available at pet supply stores, websites and department stores. Among options are dog harnesses, which go around the body of the dog and clip into the regular seat belt buckle, according to the dog safety website canineauto.com. Dog safety seats and travel crates are other choices.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that looking away from the road for only two seconds doubles your risk of being in a crash, Hunter says.

"It's really up to the owner, but people take a gamble when they put their animals in the front seat," says Kristina Dello of Cherry Hill.

By Jim Walsh, Phil Dunn, and Alesha Williams Boyd

Walsh and Dunn also report for The Courier-Post in Cherry Hill, N.J. Williams Boyd also reports for the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press. Contributing: The Associated Press.