Car Seat Study: LATCH is Hard to Use; Nissan Wants to Help

By Jason Davis | April 12, 2012
Of the many great benefits to being an automotive journalist, driving lots of new cars is the most heralded. Not so high on that list is testing car seats. On the excitement factor, that is. But trying different infant and toddler and booster seats in different cars has enabled my wife and I the chance to see just how each manufacturer approaches child safety. And in case you thought that the federally mandated LATCH system are identical in all cars, vans, trucks, wagons, and SUV's—well, you're wrong, and study released this morning by the IIHS and University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute confirms it. LATCH stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren, and the goal of LATCH is "to increase the number of children who ride properly restrained by making child restraints easier to install." But are LATCH-equipped vehicles easy to use? According to IIHS, only 21 of the 98 best-selling vehicles from 2010-2011 actually are. "Installing a child restraint isn't always as simple as a couple of clicks and you're done," says Anne McCartt, the Institute's senior vice president for research and one of the report's authors. "Sometimes parents blame themselves when they struggle with LATCH, but oftentimes the problem lies with the vehicle, not the user." Of the reasons why some automobiles were difficult to use, the IIHS study focused on three factors associated with correct use: depth, clearance, and force.
  • Depth: Lower anchors should be located no more than 3/4 inch deep in the seat bight and should be easy to see.
  • Clearance: Nothing should obstruct access to the anchors. Safety belt buckles and other hardware plus the foam, cloth or leather material of the seats themselves shouldn't get in the way of attaching child seat connectors. There should be enough room around the anchors to approach them at an angle, as well as straight-on. This makes it easier to hook or snap on connectors and also tighten LATCH straps.
  • Force: Parents should be able to install child restraints using less than 40 pounds of force. Some systems require lots of effort to properly attach child seat hardware with lower anchors, in part because they are deep in the seat bight or surrounded by interfering parts of the vehicle seat.
In the IIHS study, parent volunteers correctly used LATCH 60 percent of the time, which was denoted by a tight fit with less than 1-inch of anchor movement in any direction. Surprisingly, many of the mistakes resulted in disoriented connectors, connecting to the wrong hardware, and not snapping into the anchors fully.
The study also revealed a common misperception that tethers are optional. They are not. In the volunteer group, tethers were only used 48-percent of the time for forward-facing seats, and 54-percent of those were installed incorrectly! "Tethers should be used with all forward-facing child restraints, even if parents opt to secure seats with safety belts instead of lower anchors," says Kathy Klinich, assistant research scientist at UMTRI. "We need to better educate people about tether use." Yes, car seat installation is tricky and frustrating, and car manufacturers should be doing everything possible to make this easier—and safer—for consumers. It's not impossible to design seats that can functionally and formally meet the depth, clearance, and design factors for child seats. Though it is not listed as one of the easiest—or hardest—manufacturers to work with, Nissan is offering its customers a new program, Snug Kids, to join car seat manufacturer compatibility with Nissan vehicles. With Snug Kids, Nissan put in the labor of completing more than 7000 installations in all of its vehicles using nearly every available car seat manufacturer's latest models, and will provide its customers with a list of all compatible makes. While this doesn't specifically enable the kind of correct usage that IIHS tested for, it brings the consumer a step closer toward ease-of-use with Nissan vehicles, provided consumers use a compatible car seat.

For the complete list of what IIHS determined were the easiest and hardest to use LATCH systems, visit the IIHS study here.

Source: IIHS, Nissan