House Bill 260, drafted by Jennifer Rhodes [R] and co-sponsored by Mike Bordes [R] and Daniel Eaton [D], aims to restrict motor vehicle drivers from being distracted by pets in their laps, punishable with a $100 fine…for now. Rep Rhodes has stated that she tried to resurrect the bill—a similar bill was drafted in 2021—after witnessing a young girl almost get struck by a driver holding two dogs in one hand and petting them with the other. To be clear, the driver in this particular case was acting irresponsibly, but does this warrant legislative action? Upon doing some research into the matter, I’ve come to oppose this bill. While its intention seems to be admirable, the incentives that it creates (thanks, Thomas Sowell!) are certainly less than so, and frankly, there is really no need for this bill.
Before I dive into the incentives themselves, allow me to address the root of the issue here: ambiguous language in the bill text. Consider the following text, copied directly from the bill:
“A person who operates any motor vehicle on a public way with an animal of any size on their person, or who permits an animal to impede his or her free access to and use of vehicle controls or to obstruct their vision with any animal between the operator and the operators (sic) door is guilty of a violation.”
Had this bill contained text that focused explicitly on vehicle operators with animals on their persons that remove their hand(s) from the steering wheel to interact with the animal or focus their vision on the animal while driving distractedly, this bill would not have been as bad. I would still reject it, but it would have been less offensive. The problem with the text as it currently reads—the underlined passage in particular—is that it can be liberally interpreted by police during a traffic stop to be able to fine vehicle operators for being distracted by an animal anywhere in the car. For example, a police officer could claim that Fido barking in the back seat or standing and sitting prevented the driver’s free use of vehicle controls simply because they were distracted. This, combined with the fact that only 5% of drivers who get traffic tickets contest them and 51% of NH households own a pet, makes it easy to see how—despite a noble intention—this bill creates an incentive for police to liberally interpret the law and collect easy fine money from peaceful Granite Staters.
Let us assume for a moment that we live in a bizarro world where we fully expect cops to follow the honest spirit of laws and not their less-than-honest lettering; is this bill even useful? The data suggests otherwise: in 2019, there were only 101 traffic fatalities of any kind. The NH office of highway safety plan 2021 document dives into detail about the types of fatalities, ranging from alcohol-involved to speed-related. There is absolutely no mention of animals of any kind in the document except for a lone mention of traffic fatalities caused by “animals”. Given the relatively exotic nature of a traffic incident involving an animal seated on the driver’s lap, the fact that there is no specific mention of this type of situation leads a reasonable person to believe that the document is referencing collisions with animals, likely animals like deer, moose, etc.
Furthermore, New Hampshire already has negligent and reckless driving laws on the books, so for the odd occurrence of a motor vehicle operator being distracted by a pet on their lap, those laws can be applied as-is, today. Of course, the catch-all ‘reckless driving’ law could be used by any cop at any time, as well. Why pass another law?
Given that this bill could easily be interpreted in such a way that makes it easy for NH drivers to be fined arbitrarily and the bill is both niche and redundant, it is my opinion that this bill should be rejected outright. It would only serve to limit the liberties of NH pet owners without even actually improving safety; in fact, the only two states with similar laws on their books are New Jersey and Hawaii, easily two of the most oppressive, authoritarian states in the union.
The Committee has recommended killing the bill, which is great news. Please contact your State Reps and ask them to support the Committee’s recommendation and kill this awful bill!
UPDATE 2/14: The House killed this bill by a vote of 194-172.
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