Installing a child car seat can make the most capable parent want to kick a tire in despair. Secure in the fact that our vehicles have LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) systems to supposedly make installation a breeze, many of us instead find ourselves searching for hidden parts or jerry rigging the restraint. Or worse, we think we've installed our child's car seat properly, when, in fact, it's a disaster waiting to happen.
According to a study of LATCH hardware and passenger vehicle rear seat design, parents can finally rejoice that it's not us, it's the system itself that's the problem. Only 21 of the 98 top selling 2010-2011 model passenger vehicles evaluated have LATCH designs that meet ease-of-use criteria, found the 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," said Anne McCartt, the Institute's senior vice president for research and one of the report's authors, in a released statement. "Sometimes parents blame themselves when they struggle with LATCH, but oftentimes the problem lies with the vehicle, not the user."
LATCH systems were designed with the goal of making children who ride in car seats safer, by making car seat installation easier. Most folks who drive 2003 or newer models have this system. But 77 of the best selling 2010-2011 vehicles evaluated lack one or more factors associated with correct lower anchor use: depth, clearance, and force.
Depth: If you're desperately digging around for parts, that's a clear sign your vehicle misses the mark. The lower anchors should be located no more than ¾ inch deep in the seat and should be easy to see.
Clearance: If you have to push things out of the way, like safety buckles or seat cushions, to secure your seat, that's a no-no, too. There should be enough room around the anchors to approach them at an angle, as well as straight on, according to the criteria. In the study, a clearance angle of at least 54 degrees was associated with easier installation.
Force: You shouldn't have to pump iron to install a car seat using LATCH. The criteria say parents should need less than 40 pounds of force to install child restraints.
Researchers evaluated 98 vehicles by using actual parents to install the seats; thus mimicking what happens in the real world and not in vehicle testing labs. Certified child passenger safety technicians evaluated the parents' installation prowess.
Parent participants correctly used the lower anchors 60 percent of the time. When anchors were misused, common mistakes included not orienting the connectors properly, attaching to the wrong hardware, and not snapping them in completely. Twisted straps also counted as an error.
One of the most serious mistakes parents made: thinking the top tethers are optional -- they used them just 48 percent of the time. Overall parents correctly installed seats using lower anchors and top tethers in just 13 percent of the cases.
"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."
LATCH Winners: 2010-2011 models that meet all ease-of-use criteria
LATCH Losers: 2010-2011 models that meet don't meet any of the ease-of-use criteria