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A Safer Ride For Rover And Rex : News

Safety-minded Subaru has a new pet project: crash tests for dogs.

This year, the automaker started funding first-of-its-kind research by the nonprofit Center for Pet Safety to study the dangers of driving with a dog. The researchers are borrowing from the driver-safety playbook, putting dog-shaped dummies through crash simulations at a Virginia laboratory that tests child seats for the government.

Subaru, which has carefully cultivated an image as a pet-friendly brand, hopes the research will bring some order to the chaotic business of protecting pets in vehicles.

While human safety is the subject of intense scrutiny by the insurance industry and federal regulators, there are no standards -- governmental or otherwise -- for the various harnesses, tethers, nets, crates and cages sold for dogs. Consumers often swap bad information about the best way to protect dogs in cars, and many drivers see no harm in carrying dogs in their laps.

Dave Sullivan, the marketing, launch and strategy manager at Subaru of America, said one solution might be test procedures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or SAE International.

"We'd like to see something developed over time, but it's not really our job," Sullivan said in an interview. "We're trying to do our best to raise the issue."

Car companies have long wooed pet owners with accessories designed to keep dogs contained and out of the driver's way. Volvo offers a dog gate as an accessory for its crossovers; Subaru sells the Outback wagon with a rubberized cargo mat as a standard feature, partly to protect the car from pet accidents.

Subaru's new research project reflects the attention car companies are paying to the role of pets in American society. U.S. consumers will spend an estimated $55.5 billion on pet care and products this year, up 4 percent from last year, according to the American Pet Products Association.

"The company that solves the puzzle of how to transport pets safely will be very rich, and will deserve every penny that they make," said KC Theisen, director of pet-care issues at the Humane Society of the United States.

The first round of Subaru-funded tests, released this spring, found that while many popular dog harnesses succeed in keeping dogs from distracting the driver, they will break when stretched with the force of a crash. Videos of earlier tests show that when a harness breaks, a dog can be propelled headfirst like a missile toward the front seat.

Such simulations might even understate the risk to pets, because only 16 percent of dog owners restrain the dog in the car, according to a 2011 survey by AAA.

Subaru struggled to choose proper dummies for the tests to reflect different sizes and breeds, spokeswoman Sheriece Matias said. For the test results to be valid, she said, "you have to create a test dog that is pretty realistic in terms of their chest cavity and their little paws."

Subaru ultimately chose three dummies representing a 25-pound terrier, a 45-pound border collie and a 75-pound golden retriever.

The Center for Pet Safety has another round of testing under way this summer, using a simulator called an "accelerator sled" that speeds down a track and abruptly stops to mimic the effects of a crash. The results are due in the fall.

In the long run, Subaru is calling for standards for pet products, not cars. But Theisen said automakers can help by building cars with strong anchors for pet harnesses and crates. For some companies, that might require a shift in design and priorities.

"I don't know that anybody in the industry specifically designs vehicles for pets at this point in time," Sullivan said. "What we are trying to do right now is influence our parent company to think about some of these things."

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