By Sahar Adatia and Jimmy Singh
Australia is a nation of animal lovers, with an estimated 25 million pets across the country. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), dogs are the most common pet of choice, with 39 per cent of households owning at least one four-legged friend. So, it’s not surprising that Australian motorists regularly transport their canine companions on weekend outings and holidays as part of the family.
However, what many Australians are not aware of is that if you are driving with your pet in the car, there are, in fact, strict road rules that you need to be aware of.
Failure to comply with these rules and regulations can result in weighty fines – of which NSW have the harshest – and even loss of demerit points.
How Your Pet Can Put You at Risk of Accident and Leave you with a Whopping Fine
Dog lovers might like to have their pets accompanying them all the time, but experts have warned that they are dicing with their safety – and passenger safety – when they take them on the road with them. And the penalties are whopping.
According to Sergeant Marty Arnold, Officer in Charge of the Bundaberg Road Policing Unit in Queensland, pets, unfortunately, can be unpredictable and interfere with the driver’s ability to safely control a vehicle.
“It is not uncommon to see dogs not only sitting in the driver’s lap but from time to time standing upright, resting their front paws on either the steering wheel or driver’s side window.
“We have even had cases where the pet had jumped down into the driver’s foot well area making it difficult for the driver to brake.”
The traffic branch officer has advised that driving with an unrestrained dog is illegal, and motorists can face fines of more than $400 and even risk losing demerit points should they be caught.
The legislation, which prohibits pets being in the driver’s area of the car, comes down to a matter of safety. A pet standing or sitting on a driver’s lap can easily interfere with the driver’s ability to steer, indicate, or even obscure the driver’s view.
Additionally, it is dangerous for the pet should a vehicle be involved in a collision.
“Your pet would likely be injured if thrown around the cabin of your vehicle or injured by a deploying air bag,” Sergeant Arnold has warned.
What is the Law on Driving with Pets in NSW?
NSW Road Rules
Driving with Pet in Lap: In NSW, driving with an animal in your lap attracts an on-the-spot fine of $448 and 3 demerit points. Whereas driving with an animal in your lap in a school zone attracts an on-the-spot fine of $561 and 4 demerit points.
This is reflected in regulation 297 of the Road Rules 2014 (NSW) and has been widely interpreted when dealing with unrestrained dogs inside a vehicle.
A driver who drives a vehicle without having proper control of it can expect to receive the same penalties in NSW.
Driving without clear view: Additionally, driving a motor vehicle without a clear view of the road, and traffic ahead, or behind (and to each side of the driver) attracts an on-the-spot fine of $337 and 3 demerit points. Doing this in a school zone attracts an on-the-spot fine of $448 and 4 demerit points. See regulation 297(2) of the Road Rules 2014 (NSW).
Riding a motor bike with an animal: riding a motor bike with an animal between you and the handle bars attracts an on-the-spot fine of $448 and 3 demerit points. Doing this in a school zone attracts an on-the-spot fine of $561 and 4 demerit points. See regulation 297(3) of the Road Rules 2014 (NSW).
Those offences are “penalty notice offences”, which means a police officer can issue you with a penalty notice on the spot expressing the amount of fine, which if paid, will result in the prescribed demerit points. You may instead decide not to pay it and ‘court elect’ the penalty notice where you will be given a court date to attend and have a Magistrate in the Local Court deal with it on a plea of guilty or not guilty.
If you ‘court elect’ any of the above penalty notice offences, the Magistrate can impose a maximum penalty of up to $2,200 on a plea of guilty or finding of guilt. If you get a section 10 or conditional release order (non-conviction) then you won’t incur any demerit points- nor any fine.
According to a NSW Police spokeswoman, since the pet-related road rule was introduced in July 2017, 170 people have been charged over the offence. Of these offenders, four had been caught in school zones.
Rules, demerit points and fines may differ slightly between states. For example, in Victoria, it is an offence to transport cats in the boot of your car. In fact, Australia-wide, drivers have a ‘duty of care’ when transporting their pets.
To find out what rules apply in your state or territory, contact your state or territory transport department. Alternatively, our traffic lawyers Liverpool, Parramatta and Sydney CBD are available to answer any questions.
The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1979 (NSW)
The RSPCA can also issue fines under The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1979 (NSW).
This comprehensive regulatory framework provides the protection of animals and deems certain acts as offences which are punishable by fines and imprisonment.
You will face a fine of up to $5,500 and/or 6-month imprisonment if you carry a dog in the back of your ute or open back of a moving vehicle on a public road unless the dog is restrained or enclosed in a way that prevents the animal from falling off the vehicle. It is a defence to this if the dog is being used for work livestock. See section 7(2A) of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1979 (NSW).
The penalties are the same for carrying or conveying an animal in a way that unreasonably, unnecessarily or unjustifiably causes pain to the animal.
It is an offence to fail to alleviate the animal’s pain and inform an officer (police, RSPCA) or a person in charge of the animal as to the injury where you drove a vehicle and hit the animal causing it injury. This attracts heavy penalties of a term of imprisonment of up to 6 months and/or a fine of up to $5,500. It is a defence to this if you take reasonable steps to alleviate the animal’s pain or where there were no reasonable grounds to have believed that the animal was a domestic animal, or where the animal was a bird.
We have traffic lawyers Sydney, Parramatta and Liverpool available to assist if you have any further questions.
So, what is the safest way to transport your pets if you want to avoid a fine and demerit points?
Just like children, pets are safest restrained and travelling in the back seat. This way they are less likely to distract the driver. Additionally, this will ensure your pet cannot move around the vehicle and will decrease the risk of serious injury and accident, should the driver brake heavily.
The easiest way to transport your dog safely is by using a dog car harness. This secures your dog via a seat belt link attachment. If your dog is small enough, it can travel in a crate or enclosed carrier.
Ultimately, NSW Police will enforce The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to show that they are willing to infringe drivers who don’t have their dogs restrained inside their vehicle or on the back of utilities.
So, in short, if you want to avoid a hefty fine and being hit with a loss of demerit points, the next time you take Cooper with you on your road trip, think before you allow him to stick his head out the window or climb onto your lap.
If representing yourself in court and you wish to prepare a character letter for the Magistrate in your case, see our page, character reference for court driving offence sample.