Almost 10 years after the federal government required it in all passenger vehicles, the so-called Latch system is still managing to frustrate parents intent on protecting their children.
Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children, or Latch, was intended to ease the process of properly installing child restraints in vehicles. But automakers design seats in ways that make Latch difficult to use, according to a joint research project conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit financed by the insurance industry, and the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.
Only 21 of the 98 passenger vehicles chosen for the study had Latch designs that were deemed easy to use, and only seven of the 98 vehicles, all 2010-11 models, had Latch anchors in the middle of the second-row seats — the safest place for children to travel, according to the study’s authors.
Three car seats were tested by 36 volunteers who were selected because they used a car seat or booster seat in their personal vehicles. Each volunteer was expected to complete eight installations during a three-hour period. Only 13 percent of all tries by the volunteers resulted in correct installations of child restraints, the researchers found.
“It was kind of surprising to some of us, but to give them some slack they were not installing their own restraint in their own vehicle,” Anne T. McCartt, the I.I.H.S.’s senior vice president for research and one of the study’s authors, said in a telephone interview.
“But we knew from research we did 10 years ago that some vehicle Latch systems are easier to use than others. Some of the things we saw were pretty obviously a problem and shouldn’t be that difficult to fix,” she added.
Latch has been required in all passenger vehicles since the 2003 model year, and child restraints have had to be compatible with the system since 2002. The system consists of two components. A child seat’s lower attachments connect to anchors at the vehicle’s seat bight — that is, where the bottom cushion meets the seat back. The second component, top tethers, are intended to secure forward-facing child seats via anchors located on the vehicle’s seat back, floor, cargo area or ceiling. These were often used incorrectly, the authors said, noting excessive slack in the straps.
Last September, a study conducted by Safe Kids USA found that top tethers on forward-facing car seats were being used only about 28 percent of the time — and among parents who used the tethers, only 59 percent managed a proper installation.
The I.I.H.S. and Transportation Research Institute authors studied the different characteristics of Latch hardware in minivans, pickup trucks, station wagons and sport-utility vehicles, many of which were top-sellers marketed as family vehicles. Correct installation was observed most often when the lower anchors were located no more than three-fourths of an inch deep in the seat bight and were easy to see.
Yet researchers found plenty of instances when plastic housings or seat cushions obscured or interfered with the lower anchors. Federal regulations do not specify the depth at which lower anchors should be located in the seat bight or the amount of force required to push on a child restraint in order to secure it.
For more information on the study, including a list of the vehicles that meet the easy-installation criteria set forward by the I.I.H.S. and those that do not, click here.