Only about one in five late-model cars have easy-to-use LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) anchor systems, according to new report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The study was conducted with the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) on how vehicle design could influence a parent's or caregiver's ability to easily and successfully install child restraints in their car. Clearly, having the restraints in the car is a key first step, but unless they are simple to use, many parents may not use the LATCH or don't install the child safety seats correctly.
The study focused on the LATCH system and the ability to access and use those anchors. The LATCH system incorporates two key areas of attachment: lower anchors located at the junction between the seatback and cushion (the seat bight), and a top tether. In addition to key laboratory measurements of the anchor's location, clearance and the force required to attach to them, the study also included trial child seat installations by volunteer parents. (Learn more about LATCH systems.)
The results indicate that among the varying types of vehicles tested, only 21 of 98 from the 2010 and 2011 model years were found to have LATCH anchor systems that were easy to use. Parents were 19 times more likely to use the LATCH system correctly in those vehicles versus those where LATCH anchors didn't meet the criteria for being easy to use. Key design features that hurt LATCH usability were that anchors were too deeply recessed between the cushion and seatback, were too closely surrounded by cushion foam or fabric, or were too close to other hardware such as the vehicle's seatbelt buckles.
These results don't come as a surprise to us. As part of the safety evaluation of every car we test, our experts evaluate how friendly a vehicle will be to accepting child seats and child passengers. The findings are summarized in our road tests in Consumer Reports magazine and online at ConsumerReports.org. (See our car seat buying advice and Ratings.) Many vehicles are noted as having lower-LATCH anchors that are difficult to access, often for the same reasons noted by the IIHS study. We would encourage automakers to address the concerns pointed out in the study, particularly the clearance surrounding the lower anchors.
Something that the IIHS study does not address, but that we consistently see in our child seat ratings, is that when you are able to use the LATCH system to install a child seat, the odds of obtaining a secure fit (no more than 1 inch of movement either side-to-side or forward-and back) is better than an installation using the vehicle seatbelts.
Our child seat Ratings include our assessment of a seat's Fit-to-Vehicle potential, which is based on both LATCH and seatbelt installation in five vehicles. For many of the seats, we are much more likely to obtain a secure installation with LATCH than we are with the vehicle's belts. LATCH has the ability to pull the seat down into the seat more securely and eliminates many incompatibilities that can occur between a child seat and the vehicle belts. Situations such as when belts that are mounted forward of the seat bight (where the seatback and bottom cushion intersect) or large buckles that can interfere with the belt path on a child restraint aren't an issue with LATCH.
Don't get us wrong: We're not saying you'll always be successful with LATCH and, indeed, there may be positions where the vehicle's belts are more secure, but the odds are in favor of LATCH. This is why the lack of lower-LATCH anchors in center- and third-row locations pointed out in the study and in our own vehicle assessments is such a concern. It not only can limit parents' flexibility on where to place child seats, but it can affect their ability to install them securely and safely in all passenger positions.
Another concern is that the study also found that top-tether use was low. The volunteers only used the top-tether 48 percent of the time when installing forward-facing seats. And when they did, only 54 percent were considered to be used correctly. A loose top-tether was a common mistake. Our own tests have shown that the simple step of attaching the top-tether for forward-facing seats can significantly reduce the forward motion of the seat and child in a frontal crash. This, consequently, decreases the potential for injury to those kids, especially to their head. We recommend attaching the top-tether for any forward-facing seats where children are still secured in the internal harness of the seat.
While the study reflects on the industry, it also serves as a reminder for parents and caregivers to make the effort to secure child seats appropriately and have the installation verified, or performed, by safety seat experts. Typically, child seat safety events hosted by the local fire or police department offer inspections at no charge.
See our guide to car safety.