Simplifying child safety: IIHS rates vehicles for LATCH ease of use

June 18, 2015

In the Institute's first ease-of-use ratings for child restraint installation hardware, only 3 vehicles of more than 100 earn a good rating, while more than half are poor or marginal.

The new LATCH ratings will serve as a resource for families looking for a vehicle that makes it easy to transport their children safely. They also are intended to encourage vehicle manufacturers to pay attention to this equipment, which too often is treated as an afterthought.

Properly installed, age-appropriate child restraints provide considerably more protection for children in crashes than safety belts alone. However, observational studies have found that parents and caregivers often fail to secure them tightly or make other installation mistakes.

LATCH, which stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children, is intended to make it easier to install a child seat properly. It works: Child restraints installed with LATCH, rather than with vehicle safety belts, are more likely to be installed correctly, IIHS researchers found in a study of child seat inspection records from Safe Kids Worldwide.

But in many vehicles, LATCH hardware could be better. That same study found that parents were more likely to have installed the seat correctly when the LATCH hardware met certain key ease-of-use criteria. The criteria were first identified in earlier research that IIHS conducted with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI). In that research, volunteers were observed installing child restraints using LATCH in a variety of vehicles.

"LATCH is meant to simplify child seat installations, but it doesn't always succeed," says Jessica Jermakian, an IIHS senior research scientist. "Parents often struggle to locate the anchors in the vehicle or find it's difficult to attach the seats to them. We believe fixing these problems will make the task less frustrating for parents and increase the likelihood that children will ride in properly installed seats."

That belief is shared by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency used the UMTRI/IIHS research as the basis for many changes it proposed this year to LATCH requirements. While IIHS supports such changes, they are likely several years away. In the meantime, the ratings will encourage automakers to make improvements more quickly.

Good LATCH defined

LATCH has been required in vehicles and on child restraints since 2002. In a vehicle, the lower anchors are located where the seatback meets the bottom seat cushion, an area known as the seat bight. Attachments at the bottom of the child restraint connect to these. The top tether connects the top of the child seat to an anchor located on the vehicle's rear shelf, seatback, floor, cargo area or ceiling.

Child restraints can be installed with lower anchors or safety belts. A top tether should be used with every forward-facing child restraint, whether it is secured using belts or using the lower anchors.

In the new ratings system, vehicle LATCH hardware is rated good if it meets the following criteria:

  • The lower anchors are no more than 3/4 inch deep in the seat bight.
  • 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 to the lower anchors is less than 40 pounds. (The tool represents a lower connector of a child seat, though the actual force required when installing a seat varies depending on the specific connector.)
  • 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.

How lower anchors are evaluated

An IIHS employee uses a specialized tool to measure the depth and required force of a lower anchor. Another tool is used to measure the anchor's clearance angle.

LATCH depth and force measurement tool
LATCH depth and force measurement tool
LATCH clearance angle tool
LATCH clearance angle tool
Ford Edge
Not too deep in seat: The Ford Edge is an example of a vehicle with anchors that are at the surface and clearly visible.
Acura RDX
Too deep in seat: In contrast, the Acura RDX has anchors that are too deep within the seat.

How tether anchors compare

Tether anchors in a sedan are typically located on the rear deck, as they are in the Volkswagen Passat. The tether anchors in the BMW X5 are located in the middle of the seatback. In both vehicles, they are easy to find. The X5 has clear labels near the tether anchors, so no other hardware, such as cargo hooks, could be mistaken for them.

Volkswagen Passat tether anchor
Volkswagen Passat: Easy to find location; no other hardware could be confused for anchor
BMW X5 tether
BMX X5: Easy-to-find location; no other hardware could be confused for anchor
Toyota Sienna tether
The Toyota Sienna is an example of a vehicle with poorly located tether anchors. They are at the very bottom of the seatback, near a lot of potentially confusing hardware.
Honda Odyssey tether anchor
Tether anchors should be easy to find on the rear deck in sedans or the top 85 percent of the seatback in minivans and SUVs. In this Honda Odyssey, the tether anchor is hard to find because it is too close to the bottom of the seat. Some vehicles have hardware such as cargo hooks that could be confused for the anchor. In that case, the tether anchor should be clearly labeled.

Under existing federal regulations, most vehicles must have at least two rear seating positions with full LATCH hardware and a third with at least a tether anchor. The IIHS ratings are based on the best two LATCH positions available in the vehicle's second row.

To earn a good rating, two LATCH positions must meet all five criteria, and a third tether anchor also must be easy to use. For an acceptable rating, two LATCH positions must each meet at least 2 of the 3 requirements for lower anchors and at least 1 of the 2 tether anchor requirements. If either position meets neither of the tether anchor requirements or meets only one of the lower anchor requirements, then the vehicle is marginal. If even fewer criteria are met, the vehicle is poor.

The ratings measure ease of use only. A correct installation in a vehicle with poor LATCH is just as safe as a correct installation in a vehicle with good LATCH. However, achieving that correct installation in the poor-rated vehicle is more difficult.

The same is true for an installation with a safety belt: If it's done correctly — including attaching the tether in the case of a forward-facing restraint — the child will be just as safe as with an installation using lower anchors. However, doing it correctly can be challenging.

How they did

Of 102 current models that IIHS has rated for LATCH, the three good ones are the BMW 5 series, a large luxury car; the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class, a large luxury SUV; and the Volkswagen Passat, a midsize car. Of the rest, 44 are acceptable, 45 are marginal, and 10 are poor.

The poor-rated models run the gamut of vehicle types from minicars to large pickup trucks. Most glaring is the Toyota Sienna. As a minivan, it's commonly bought to ferry children.

In all of the rated vehicles, the most common problem is lower anchors that are too deep within the seat bight. Nearly three-quarters of LATCH-equipped seating positions — including 3 of 4 LATCH positions in the Sienna — had this problem.

Part of the reason for the excessive depth is aesthetics: Automakers prefer to have the metal bars hidden from view. In sedans, another reason has to do with the way the cars are constructed. Usually, the only hard structure to attach the anchors to is the body of the sedan, which is located deep under the seat. This problem can be fixed, but it's not necessarily simple.

The online ratings information helps consumers understand exactly why a vehicle gets the rating it does. A diagram for each vehicle shows the location of all LATCH-equipped seating positions and which criteria those positions meet and which they miss. The location of extra tether anchors, for use with restraints attached with safety belts, also is shown.

In some cases, center seating positions don't have their own lower anchors, but auto manufacturers allow anchors to be "borrowed" from adjacent positions. The rating diagrams show when such borrowing is allowed by the vehicle manufacturer. (Some child restraint manufacturers advise against using borrowed anchors; consumers should check the child restraint instruction manual.)

"Even if you're not in the market for a new vehicle, our ratings can be a helpful source of information about a vehicle you already own," Jermakian says. "We're essentially providing you with a map of where child seats can be installed most easily in your vehicle, including the specific hardware available for each seating position."

It's important to note that seating configurations and LATCH hardware can vary depending on the trim level or type of seats. The rating details indicate which specific vehicle was measured. Generally, ratings are provided for the configuration believed to be most popular.

Good+ to reward greater flexibility

The Institute plans to award extra credit to vehicles with good-rated LATCH that also provide parents with additional LATCH options beyond the two required seating positions. In particular, the "good+" rating would encourage the availability of LATCH in the second-row center position, the safest place for children to travel. Currently, no vehicles qualify for good+.

A two-row vehicle that meets the criteria for a good rating and also has acceptable or good LATCH in the center will be rated good+. The center LATCH position may use either dedicated anchors or borrowed anchors. Borrowing is sometimes a more feasible option because of limited space in the rear seat or because of the location of safety belts or other hardware.

A three-row vehicle must have one additional full LATCH position and tether anchors in all rear seating positions to earn good+. If the vehicle has a second-row center seating position, it must have the ability to use LATCH there as well.

Initial LATCH ratings

2015 models unless otherwise noted

BMW 5 series Mercedes-Benz GL-Class Volkswagen Passat
Acura MDX Dodge Durango Honda Odyssey Mazda 3
Buick Enclave Dodge Grand Caravan Honda Pilot Mazda CX-5
Chevrolet Cruze Ford Edge Hyundai Santa Fe Mercedes-Benz C-Class
Chevrolet Equinox Ford Expedition Jeep Cherokee Mercedes-Benz E-Class
Chevrolet Impala Ford Explorer Jeep Compass Mitsubishi Outlander Sport
Chevrolet Malibu Ford Flex Kia Forte 2014 Nissan Maxima
Chevrolet Tahoe Ford Focus Kia Optima Nissan Murano
Chevrolet Traverse Ford Taurus Kia Sedona Nissan Pathfinder
Chrysler 300 GMC Terrain Kia Sorento Nissan Versa
Chrysler Town & Country GMC Yukon XL Kia Soul Toyota Camry
Dodge Dart Honda Civic Lexus GX Volvo S60
2016 Acura RDX Ford Escape Lexus CT 200h Subaru Impreza
Audi Q7 Ford F-150 Lexus NX Subaru Outback
BMW 3 series Ford Fusion Lexus RC Subaru XV Crosstrek
2016 BMW X3 GMC Acadia Lexus RX Toyota 4Runner
BMW X5 Honda Accord Mazda CX-9 Toyota Avalon
Buick LaCrosse Honda CR-V Mini Cooper Toyota Corolla
Cadillac SRX Hyundai Elantra Nissan Frontier Toyota Highlander
Chevrolet Sonic Hyundai Sonata Nissan Quest Toyota Prius
Chrysler 200 Infiniti QX60 Nissan Rogue Toyota RAV4
Dodge Charger Jeep Grand Cherokee Nissan Sentra Volvo V60
Dodge Journey Jeep Wrangler Subaru Forester Volvo XC60
Dodge Ram 1500
Chevrolet Silverado 1500 Hyundai Accent Nissan Altima Toyota Tundra
Ford Fiesta Lexus ES Toyota Sienna Volkswagen Jetta
GMC Sierra 1500 Mazda 6

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