Any parent who has struggled to figure out the correct installation of child car seats knows that it’s no simple task. In fact, a new survey from AAA finds that three-quarters of Child Passenger Safety (CPS) technicians observed that parents misuse the LATCH system more than half of the time.
Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH), which was introduced more than a decade ago (it has been required in nearly all passenger vehicles and car seats since 2002), was intended to simplify car seat installation for parents. But it hasn’t worked out that way.
According to Jennifer Huebner-Davidson, AAA manager of Traffic Safety Advocacy, “It isn’t as simple as we’d hoped it would be. It still requires that you read your vehicle’s owner’s manual and also car seat manufacturer’s instructions.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says that 75 percent of parents who have experience installing car seats using LATCH and seat belts prefer the LATCH system. But preference doesn’t guarantee a proper installation. A recent survey by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found that only 13 percent of parent volunteers were able to correctly install a car seat using LATCH.
Huebner-Davidson noted that you can still get “a really nice installation” using LATCH, but parents have to make sure they’re using it correctly. “LATCH has its own set of misuses just as installing a car seat with a seat belt does.”
The AAA survey and observations during field car seat checks finds that one of the biggest problems is that parents are putting the car seat in the center seating position when their vehicle doesn’t allow them to use LATCH in that seat.
Only seven of 98 of the top-selling 2010-2011 MY vehicles have LATCH that allow use of it in the center seating position. Two that do: the 2011 Toyota Sequoia SUV (LATCH in the second-row center position) and the 2011 Toyota Sienna minivan (LATCH in the third-row center position). Additionally, in the 2012 Ford Explorer, to cite another example, if the car seat manufacturer’s installation instructions allow use of innermost outboard anchors and the car seat is a certain width, parents can install the car seat using LATCH anchors.
Top 3 Misuses of LATCH
- Putting the car seat in the center position of the back seat when the vehicle doesn’t allow it.
- Doubling up the systems – trying to install the car seat using the LATCH anchors and also the seat belt, thinking that it’s safer using both systems, when actually it isn’t. “The car seats are not tested that way and we absolutely can’t recommend it,” said Huebner-Davidson. “It could stress the seat. It could put more crash forces on the child. We don’t know exactly what it would do.”
- Using incorrect belt path – Here, parents install a convertible seat (a seat that goes rear-facing for infants and toddlers or forward-facing for older children) using the LATCH system, and they forget to use the correct belt path. “We’ll see a car seat that’s rear-facing and the LATCH that’s threaded through the wrong way. It’s using the belt path that’s intended for forward-facing, or vice-versa, when the car seat is forward-facing and they’re using the wrong belt path, one that’s intended for rear-facing,” said Huebner-Davidson.
“Car seat installation with LATCH is still complicated. We have just as much possibility for misuse as we do with seat belt systems.”
Are manufacturers changing?
Huebner-Davidson indicated that hope may be on the horizon. But first, federal standards will have to change and then vehicle manufacturers will need to work to implement the new standards.
“The issue is with the spacing of the anchors in the back seat and the seats themselves are reinforced differently,” said Huebner-Davidson. “We should start to see increased amounts of vehicles with additional LATCH seating positions. The government only requires that vehicle manufacturers place two seating locations in the back seat that can use LATCH. That’s why we see the two outboard seating positions. The government also requires top tethers all the way across the back in three locations.
“Vehicle manufactures will have to reinforce the seats differently, look at how they can offset some of the anchors to be able to have enough space in that center seating position – because a lot of times that center seat is a bit more narrow than what we need for a car seat.”
Recommendations for parents
In the meantime, Huebner-Davidson offers the following advice for parents.
- ”The biggest thing for parents is to understand that it’s not as easy as click-click, you’re done. I recommend they be very careful. Read the vehicle owner’s manual and the car seat instructions.
- “We also have car seat technicians across U.S. that can help them look at the instructions, where the best place is to place the car seat in the vehicle, and show them how to safely do it. The techs will walk parents through it, show them how to use both systems (LATCH or seat belt), ask them about who else they transport in their cars, to make sure that everything is as perfect as possible.”
The car seat check is free at AAA locations and takes an average of 15 minutes per seat. Some vehicles have two or three car seats. It can take up to 45 minutes if it’s a really difficult situation or the parents have a lot of questions.
Parents can go to seatcheck.org or NHTSA.gov to find fitting stations. There are also law enforcement offices that do car seat checks, SAFEKIDS, hospitals, fire rescue. A few places do charge for appointments, but there’s usually a note if they do charge for it.
This story originally appeared at The Car Connection