All front-facing child restraints have top tether straps to keep restraints from tipping too far forward in crashes, but parents often don't use them. An Institute survey shows tethers in use 43 percent of the time, about the same as in the mid-1970s.
Tethers are part of Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children, a system intended to make it easier to correctly secure child restraints. Lower attachments on the restraints connect to anchors in the vehicle seat. For child seats that face front, top tethers attach to anchors on a vehicle's rear shelf, seatback, floor, cargo area, or ceiling. Tethers also are meant to be used when safety belts secure child restraints. Untethered restraints can allow a child's upper body to move too far forward in a crash, risking facial and head injuries.
"Crash tests show that tethers help reduce the likelihood of head injuries in crashes, so it's disappointing that more parents don't use them," says Anne McCartt, Institute senior vice president for research. "Forward-facing seats that aren't tethered don't protect kids as well in crashes as seats that are properly tethered."
Technicians trained to correctly install and use child restraints examined more than 1,500 restraints in cars, minivans, pickups, and SUVs in parking lots in the Washington, D.C., area in midsummer. Drivers of cars, minivans, and SUVs employed tethers at about the same rate, around 44 percent. Pickups were least likely to have child restraints. When they did, tethers were latched just 17 percent of the time.
The older the vehicle, the less likely tethers were used. Only 19 percent were being used in vehicles older than 2001, compared with 47 percent in 2001 and newer models. Nearly all forward-facing child restraints had tethers by 1999, though the corresponding anchors weren't required in passenger vehicles until 2001 models. Lower anchors weren't mandated until 2003. To work effectively, tethers should be tight, not loose, and 9 of 10 tethers surveyed were taut.
The overall findings are in line with prior Institute studies. In a 2003 survey in Maryland, researchers found a tether use rate of 47 percent (see "LATCH makes buckling kids easier, but it still isn't a breeze," June 11, 2003). A 1974 survey indicated available tethers were being used only about half of the time (see "Few children protected in cars," May 12, 1975).