IT'S THAT TIME of year, when we are all making the pilgrimage home for the holidays. For us, that recently involved a three-day road trip from California to Oklahoma, dogs in tow, of course.

It makes us part of a growing trend. According to the 2013-2014 National Pet Owners Survey by the American Pet Products Association, 32 percent of dog owners take their pets with them in the car when they are traveling for at least two nights. That's up from not quite 25 percent in the 2011-2012 survey.

Whether we're going around the block or on a 2,694-mile odyssey, our dogs' safety is paramount. Harper and Gemma would prefer to ride in the footwell, and Keeper likes to look out the window, but their wishes are ignored. Pets are unsafe when they ride loose in a vehicle. If your pet jumps into your lap or onto the steering wheel, he can cause you to have an accident. In the event of an accident, pets can go flying through the windshield or hit the driver or be ejected from the car into traffic.

They're also a serious distraction to the driver. A 2011 AAA/Kurgo survey of pet owners found that 29 percent of drivers are distracted by their dogs, and 65 percent say they engage in distracting activities, such as petting the dog (52 percent), using their hands or arms to restrict the dog's movement (42 percent) or allowing the dog to sit on their lap while they drive (17 percent). A whopping 84 percent of AAA/Kurgo respondents don't restrain their dogs on car trips. Their reasons?

*  My dog is calm (42 percent)

*  Never considered it (39 percent)

*  Just take dog on short trips (29 percent)

*  Want dog to be able to put head out window (12 percent)

*  Too complicated/too much trouble (7 percent)

*  Want dog to have fun in car (3 percent)

*  Want to be able to hold dog (3 percent)

But an unrestrained dog in a 30-mph collision is flung about with hundreds or even thousands of pounds of force. When he strikes a person or some part of the car, the result can be injury or even death. Veterinarians at emergency clinics have seen unrestrained dogs with broken backs after car accidents.

Dogs and cats are safer when they are restrained in the car, but no safety standards exist for testing pet-safety harnesses or crates. A German automobile club called ADAC, similar to AAA, conducted crash tests in 2008. The results showed that small crates are safest in the footwell behind the front seats. Large crates should be placed in the cargo area of a station wagon or SUV, facing crosswise to the direction of travel (how our dogs ride). The organization recommends that harnesses have large belts with metal attachments, two tie-ins and a short, stable attachment system.

The nonprofit Center for Pet Safety tested pet harnesses last year using the same safety standards used for child restraints and gave its highest rating to the Sleepypod Clickit Utility, a three-point safety harness with a broad padded vest.

Don't let your pet ride in the front seat. If he must - because your only car is a two-seater, for instance - be sure you disable the air bag when he's a passenger. The force with which it hits can seriously injure or even kill a pet. Nothing can completely protect pets in the event of a car accident, but we can reduce their risk of injury by not letting them ride unrestrained.

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with Vetstreet.com and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books.