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Status Report, Vol. 47, No. 3 | April 12, 2012 Subscribe

Parents' struggles show shortcomings of LATCH

Jackie Meurer checks the Ford Taurus manual to see how to use LATCH in this sedan.
Sliding her hands along the back seat of a 2011 Ford Taurus, Whitney Amyett struggled to find LATCH anchors to connect a child restraint. Something that looked like an anchor was sticking out, but it was in such an unexpected spot that she figured it had a different purpose. And the second anchor was nowhere to be seen.

It took several more minutes of searching and consulting the vehicle manual before Amyett spotted the child restraint symbols on the seat back above the anchors and was able to install the Chicco KeyFit 30 infant restraint.

Fortunately, this was just a demonstration at the Institute's Vehicle Research Center. In real life, a parent who is in a hurry or whose baby is crying might not take the time or have the patience to figure it out.

The experience was frustrating, said Amyett, 22, and the mother of a 1-year-old girl. "I kept feeling underneath, and I couldn't find anything," she said. The problem is that the sedan's two sets of LATCH anchors aren't in the typical places on either side of a seating position. Instead, one anchor is in the middle of the outboard seat, while its match is hidden among the vehicle belt buckles in the center.

The Institute invited several parents of young children to try installing child seats in four vehicles, two with easy-to-use LATCH systems and two difficult. The demonstrations illustrated some of the problems with vehicles highlighted in the Institute's joint study with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, as well as frustrations and misconceptions that many parents share.

In the case of the Taurus, Amyett's difficulties came as no surprise, based on the research. She had a much easier time installing the KeyFit in the Dodge Grand Caravan. That also was expected because the anchors on that minivan are easy to find.

Amyett's husband, Randal, was tasked with installing the Clek Oobr booster seat in the Toyota Sienna and had to resort to an unusual workaround. The Oobr has rigid LATCH connectors, so the seat needs to be held at an angle to install it. Because the Sienna's anchors are slightly buried, installing the Oobr in highback mode is impossible unless you do what Randal Amyett did and recline the minivan's seat to get the right angle. Then he removed the head restraint and straightened the seat back.

That solution, which isn't mentioned in the vehicle manual, was something Amyett, a 26-year-old plumber, had previously stumbled upon when installing his daughter's infant seat in a Honda Element.

Next, Amyett installed the Oobr in a Chevrolet Tahoe SUV. As predicted, the installation was quick and simple. "The anchors are really accessible and very easy to just click right in," he noted afterward. "I didn't have to hunt for them."

Even when installations are quick, they aren't always correct. Jackie Meurer, a 33-year-old nurse and mother of two, had no trouble finding the lower anchors in the Taurus and the Grand Caravan. However, both times she neglected to use the Evenflo Maestro's top tether, an essential part of any forward-facing restraint. Meurer said she knew about the tether but, like many parents, thought it was optional.

Zeke Cox, a small business owner with four kids, complained about the hook-style connectors on the Safety 1st Alpha Omega Elite, preferring push-on ones that click onto anchors. Cox, 32, correctly installed the child seat in the Tahoe and Sienna and remembered to use the tether.

Both Meurer and Whitney Amyett said they had trouble making their installations tight enough. After the demonstration, Meurer watched as Institute senior research engineer Chris Sherwood adjusted the child restraints in Meurer's own vehicle.

"I wish there was a better way to make it tighter," she said. "He's stronger. I made it as tight as a I could, and he goes in there and makes it tighter."

How automakers can improve LATCH

The LATCH system is supposed to make it easier to install child seats by standardizing attachment hardware, but only 21 of 98 top-selling 2010-11 model passenger vehicles have LATCH designs that are easy to use.

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