Even the most capable of parents can get frustrated when installing a car seat. A system called Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children is supposed to make things easier by standardizing attachment hardware, but a new study shows that many automakers aren’t paying attention to the key factors that make LATCH* work. LATCH was installed in some vehicles as early as the 2001 model year and was required in all passenger vehicles by model year 2003. Child restraints have been required to be compatible with the LATCH system since 2002. Only 21 of the 98 top-selling 2010-11 model passenger vehicles evaluated have LATCH designs that are easy to use. This is the main finding of joint research conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.
Installing a child restraint isn’t always as simple as a couple of clicks and you’re done,” says Anne McCartt, the Institute’s senior vice president for research and one of the report’s authors. “Sometimes parents blame themselves when they struggle with LATCH, but oftentimes the problem lies with the vehicle, not the user.”
The goal of LATCH is to increase the number of children who ride properly restrained by making child restraints easier to install. Consumers who drive 2003 and later models likely have encountered the system. LATCH has two distinct components: lower attachments on child restraints that connect to anchors at the vehicle seat bight (where the bottom cushion meets the seat back) and top tethers on forward-facing restraints that attach to anchors on the vehicle’s rear shelf, seat back, floor, cargo area or ceiling. Tethers help prevent child restraints from moving too far forward during crashes, putting children at risk of head or neck injuries.
Tethers aren’t optional: Volunteers used top tethers just 48 percent of the time with forward-facing child restraints. When tethers were used, 54 percent of the installations were incorrect. Leaving too much slack in the strap was a common error. Another was attaching tethers to the wrong hardware.
Overall, parents and caregivers correctly installed seats with lower anchors and top tethers to get a tight, secure fit at the right angle in just 13 percent of the cases.
“With tethers, the main issue is use, not usability,” says Kathy Klinich, assistant research scientist at UMTRI and the study’s lead author. “Many parents don’t realize they are supposed to use the tether.”
Previous studies have shown that many people neglect to use tethers. A 2010 Institute survey found tethers in use 43 percent of the time, about the same as in the mid-1970s.
“Tethers should be used with all forward-facing child restraints, even if parents opt to secure seats with safety belts instead of lower anchors,” Klinich says. “We need to better educate people about tether use.”
Using a tether “is essential,” said McCartt. Many parents do not understand how important it is, and may not think about using the tether when they move their child from a rear facing restraints to a forward one, she said. The tether is also necessary if the car seat is installed using seatbelts. With belts, it is critical that they be in lock mode, so the belt is not freely moving, experts say.
Making LATCH easier to use might encourage more parents to use child restraints and install them correctly, McCartt says. In 2010, 29 percent of children 1-3 years old and 12 percent of infants younger than 1 who died in crashes were riding unrestrained. Those numbers mark a sharp improvement over 1985, when 71 percent of children ages 1-3 and 35 percent of infants killed in crashes were unrestrained. “Getting kids into the right restraints for their age and size is the first step,” McCartt says. “The next is to install the seats correctly because research shows this improves protection. This is where LATCH can help.”
2011 models that meet all 3 easy-installation criteria
- Audi A4 Quattro
- Cadillac Escalade
- Chevrolet Equinox LT
- Chevrolet Silverado 1500 crew cab
- Chevrolet Suburban LT
- Chevrolet Tahoe LS
- Chrysler Town & Country (2010)
- Dodge Caliber Mainstreet
- Dodge Grand Caravan Crew
- Dodge Ram 1500 crew cab
- Ford Escape XLT
- Ford F-150 SuperCrew Cab
- GMC Sierra 1500 crew cab SLE
- Honda Pilot EX-L
- Kia Sedona LX
- Land Rover Range Rover Sport
- Mercedes-Benz C300
- Mercedes-Benz E350
- Mitsubishi Eclipse coupe GS
- Mitsubishi Lancer ES
- Toyota Tacoma extended cab
2011 models that don’t meet any easy-installation criteria
- Buick Enclave CX
- Chevrolet Impala LT
- Dodge Avenger Express
- Ford Flex SEL
- Ford Taurus Limited
- Hyundai Sonata Limited
- Toyota Sienna XLE