Buckling precious cargo into a late-model vehicle has gotten a bit easier in the past year, the Institute's LATCH ease-of-use ratings show.
IIHS launched its ratings of child seat installation hardware in vehicles in June 2015 (see Status Report special issue: LATCH ratings, June 18, 2015). Out of 102 vehicles rated at that time, the majority were poor or marginal. Today, a total of 170 current models have been evaluated, and most are good or acceptable. Three models — the Audi Q7, Lexus RX and Toyota Prius — earn the top rating of good+, a distinction that no vehicle achieved last year.
A properly installed, age-appropriate child restraint can protect a child much better in a crash than a safety belt alone. LATCH, which stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children, is intended to make it easier for caregivers to install child restraints properly. Child restraints installed with LATCH are more likely to be put in correctly than restraints installed using the vehicle safety belt, IIHS research has shown (see "What makes LATCH easier to use? Parents reinforce lab findings of key vehicle design features," April 8, 2014).
Even with LATCH, installation errors are common. Research by IIHS and the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute studied what kinds of mistakes were made with varying LATCH set-ups (see "Keys to better LATCH," April 12, 2012, and "Easy-to-spot anchors boost tether use," Feb. 20, 2014). This allowed researchers to identify key ease-of-use criteria that can minimize mistakes, and these criteria form the basis for the IIHS ratings.
"Frustrating child seat installations have become a familiar rite of parenthood," says Jessica Jermakian, an IIHS senior research engineer. "Unfortunately, these frustrations lead to mistakes that can have real consequences in the event of a crash. We're pleased to see automakers taking this issue seriously and making improvements in response to our ratings."
In the IIHS ratings system, LATCH hardware is considered good if it meets the following criteria:
- The lower anchors are no more than ¾ inch deep within the seat bight or slightly deeper if there is open access around them.
- The lower anchors are easy to maneuver around. This is defined as having a clearance angle greater than 54 degrees.
- The force required to attach a standardized tool representing a child seat connector to the lower anchors is less than 40 pounds.
- Tether anchors are on the vehicle's rear deck or on the top 85 percent of the seatback. They shouldn't be at the very bottom of the seatback, under the seat, on the ceiling or on the floor.
- The area where the tether anchor is found doesn't have any other hardware that could be confused for the tether anchor. If other hardware is present, then the tether anchor must have a clear label located within 3 inches of it.
Summary of 2016-17
The Audi Q7, Lexus RX and Toyota Prius are rated good+ for easy-to-use LATCH hardware and additional seating flexibility. No models earned the distinction in 2015.
To earn a good rating, two LATCH positions in the second row must meet all five criteria, and a third tether anchor must meet both tether criteria.
The good+ rating is for vehicles that meet the criteria for a good rating and provide additional LATCH-equipped seating positions. For a two-row vehicle, that means having a third good or acceptable LATCH seating position. The third position may use either dedicated anchors or anchors borrowed from other positions. In many vehicles that have lower anchors in the second-row outboard seating positions, LATCH can be used in the center position by "borrowing" one anchor from each side. Some vehicles have one dedicated anchor for the center seat and rely on a borrowed anchor for the other side.
For a three-row vehicle to earn a good+ rating, it must have one additional good or acceptable LATCH position (without borrowing) and tether anchors in all rear seating positions. The additional tether anchors must meet at least one of the two tether anchor criteria. If the vehicle has a second-row center seating position, it must have good or acceptable LATCH there (with or without borrowing).
The good+ designation is intended to encourage manufacturers to give parents greater flexibility when seating children in a vehicle.
"We're especially interested in making it possible for more parents to use LATCH in the second-row center position," Jermakian says. "Parents are repeatedly told that is the safest place for children to ride, so we want them to have the option of an easy installation there."
The second-row center is safest because it is far from the hard surfaces of the vehicle interior and from the striking vehicle in a side crash. However, a properly restrained child is very safe in any rear seating position.
How one automaker improved
Toyota Motor Corp. has two of the three vehicles with good+ ratings and none of the eight poor-rated models. That is a big improvement over last year, when it had three vehicles on the poor list.
Like other manufacturers, Toyota improved its LATCH ratings through a combination of small tweaks and big overhauls. The Toyota Sienna, which went from poor to acceptable, is an interesting case. The 2015 Sienna's poor rating was noteworthy because, as a minivan, the Sienna is often bought to ferry children around.
Toyota's first step was to add a better label for the Sienna's tether anchors. That nudged the minivan's rating up to marginal.
The next step was to open up access to the lower anchors by adjusting the seat trim and foam, says Jennifer Pelky, senior engineer in interior safety and crashworthiness at Toyota. Those changes reduced the force needed to attach the connectors, resulting in an overall rating of acceptable for Siennas built after March 2016.
Toyota made improvements to existing vehicles to earn better LATCH ratings.
The automaker also kept LATCH ease
of use in mind as it redesigned models.
The company also made changes to the Lexus ES, which went from poor to acceptable, and the Toyota Tundra extended cab, which improved to marginal.
The redesigned Prius, meanwhile, comes with an innovative approach to LATCH hardware. Locating the lower anchors so that they are not too deep within the seat is a particular challenge in sedans. Toyota solved it by carving out large openings around each anchor to give free access to the anchors. The openings are covered by a flap with a Velcro closure.
Creating those openings was a better option for the Prius than bringing the anchors further forward, Pelky says. Government regulations limit how far forward the anchors can be, and there are other considerations too, she noted.
"You can imagine that as an adult riding in that seat, if you feel a wire poking you in the back on even a short trip, it's going to make you fairly upset with your vehicle," Pelky says. "Of course, we put a great deal of effort into making sure our efforts meet the needs of our smallest passengers, our children, but we also need to keep those adults comfortable as well."
The Toyota Sienna's anchors are at the very bottom of the seatback, near a lot of potentially confusing hardware. In the 2015 model (left), the problem was compounded by the lack of a clear label. In the 2016 Sienna (right), the tether anchors are in the same spot, but a new label makes them more obvious.
2016 Toyota Prius
Toyota used an innovative approach to allow better access to the lower anchors in the redesigned Prius. There are large openings around each lower anchor, and everything is covered by a flap with a Velcro closure.