A federal rule known as Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children, or LATCH, is supposed to be simplifying the process of installing infant and child restraints. The goal is to increase the number of children who ride properly restrained. Automakers have to install special anchors in vehicles, and infant and child restraints have to be made with lower and upper attachments that mate with the anchors. Then parents should be more likely to latch restraints into cars correctly and with less effort.
The process always has been a struggle. Child restraints used to be attached using vehicle safety belts. Too often the result was a loose fit, even when parents gave a diligent effort. A 1999 survey conducted by the National Safe Kids Campaign found that about half of inspected child restraints held in place by safety belts were too loose.
Do LATCH systems work any better? To find out, Institute researchers attempted to install 6 different restraints in 10 vehicles. The LATCH systems did make installation easier, but it wasn't a breeze. Not all restraints were easy to install in all vehicles.
Attachments on child restraints latch to lower anchors in vehicles
Installation generally is easier and less complex with LATCH systems compared with the old way of routing safety belts through restraints to attach them to cars. Still, LATCH doesn't always make it a simple click-in operation to install a child restraint.
LATCH-compliant anchors became mandatory in new cars on September 1, 2002. Top tethers, designed to prevent excessive forward movement of forward-facing child restraints during crashes, became mandatory in 1999. Automakers have some leeway in the placement of the anchors, and vehicle seat designs vary from highly contoured to flat and bench-like. The result is a lot of variation in how child restraints fit, and gaining access to the new anchors in some vehicles can be difficult. A child restraint that fits easily into one vehicle may not fit very well, if at all, in another.
Institute researchers examined the wide range of child restraints on the market and selected six representing the three available types of lower attachments. One rear-facing and one forward-facing restraint had rigid attachments that hook onto the lower anchors in vehicle seats. Three restraints, one rear-facing and two forward-facing, attached with flexible straps and hooks. The sixth child restraint, another forward-facing seat with flexible straps, attached with C-hooks.
After conducting a photo survey of the anchor points in more than 50 new vehicles, the researchers selected 10 test vehicles, all 2003 models — Cadillac CTS, Chevrolet Trail-Blazer, Chrysler Concorde, Dodge Grand Caravan, Ford Taurus, Honda Element, Hyundai Santa Fe, Lincoln Town Car, Pontiac Montana, and Toyota RAV4. These vehicles represent a variety of designs for accessing the anchor points for child restraints in the back seats. Both the shapes of the vehicle seats and the placement of the anchors for securing the restraints contributed to the ease of access.
"Installation generally was easier and less complex with LATCH-compliant systems than the old way of routing safety belts through child restraints to attach them to cars," says Susan Ferguson, Institute senior vice president for research. "Still, LATCH doesn't always make it a simple click-in operation to install a restraint. Before buying one, parents should be sure to try fitting it in the vehicle they plan to use it in because not every restraint is going to fit into every vehicle."
The easiest fits were in the TrailBlazer, Grand Caravan, and RAV4. In contrast, it was difficult to secure any of the six child restraints in the Santa Fe or CTS.
The lower anchors in some vehicles are visible, while in other cases they're recessed into the seats. Visible anchors generally made installation easier, but not always. In the Ford Taurus, which has clearly visible anchors, the researchers had difficulty fitting two restraints because the position of the safety belt buckle impeded efforts to tighten the restraint straps.
In most cases, child restraints with rigid attachments were among the simplest to install and remove because they don't have any straps to tighten. On the other hand, researchers weren't able to install either of the two restraints with rigid attachments in the Hyundai Santa Fe. The geometry of this vehicle's back seat was such that the researchers couldn't line up the attachments on the restraints with the anchors buried deep in the vehicle seat, and the inflexibility of the attachments left little room for maneuvering.
Researchers couldn't install one of the two child restraints with rigid attachments in the Cadillac CTS, either.
Removal of child restraints also could be difficult. The release buttons on restraints with rigid and C-hook attachments made them easy to remove. Releasing the flexible hook required depressing it and then rotating it when the anchor was buried in the vehicle seat.
Other problems were associated with top tethers. Especially in SUVs and minivans, these could be hard to use. Anchors for tethers weren't always clearly marked. Sometimes the anchor points were on the backs of vehicle seats, which had to be folded down before a tether could be installed. In some cases, a head restraint had to be removed to accommodate a tether.
"Parents need to read two manuals, the one that comes with the restraint and the vehicle owner's manual, to make installation go more smoothly, particularly when it comes to top tethers," Ferguson says. "But even this won't guarantee success because the manuals aren't always helpful. For example, some don't say what to do when a seatback or head restraint gets in the way."
Will tethers be used? Only about half of the time, surveys suggest
For years some child restraints have included top tethers, but the tethers never have been widely used. They were required on child restraints in the early 1980s, but then the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration backed away from the requirement. Some automakers did provide anchors for tethers, but use rates still were low. A 1974 Institute survey indicated that available tethers were being used only about half of the time. What's new since last September is that both tethers and corresponding anchors in vehicles are required. But use rates don't appear to be going up. When Institute researchers recently surveyed child restraint use in Maryland parking lots, they found a tether use rate of 47 percent among forward-facing restraints known to have tethers.