5 Benefits of the LATCH System for Car Seats

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The LATCH system was rolled out gradually, with orders to be fully implemented by September of 2002. See more pictures of car safety.

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5 Benefits of the LATCH System for Car Seats

Nearly every article about infant car seats states the same statistic: Nearly 4 out of 5 are installed incorrectly. It's true. Almost 80-percent of all infant car seats are installed incorrectly. That means that roughly, only 1 out of every 5 kids is actually safe in his or her car seat. The devices entrusted with keeping our nation's youth safe in car crashes are installed with less accuracy than the suction cups on those obnoxious "Baby on Board" signs. Research says so.

And because so many people don't use car seats at all, and most of those who do tend to use them incorrectly, car crashes are the leading cause of death in Americans ages 2 to 14. With stats like that, it was obvious that the car seat situation needed to be fixed.

The problem, researchers determined, is that there was no consistency across the industry. Car seats were a confusing mass of plastic and metal and fabric that perched awkwardly and unsteadily on a car's backseat, and it was up to the most responsible adult available to decide how to thread the car's seatbelts through the seat base's loops and come up with something that looked like it might be a tight enough fit. This was, one can imagine, done quickly, under pressure, with a squalling infant balanced on the hip, all the while grabbing fistfuls of hair. Most of the time, it was okay, since people don't crash every time they leave the driveway. But when a crash did happen, this installation simply wasn't adequate and the kid would get hurt.

And so, the LATCH system was introduced. It stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren, and believe it or not, the acronym isn't the most awkward part of the initiative. Rather, that would be the result of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) initiative to force automakers and infant safety seat manufacturers to meet a series of standards that would simplify the entire process of getting a kid strapped safely into a car. LATCH was rolled out gradually, with orders to be fully implemented by September of 2002. Years later, there are still a lot of questions -- and some of its purported benefits are still being called into question.

5: LATCH is Universal and (Possibly) Easier to Use

Car seats were often installed incorrectly and the blame was often placed on the installation process, which was complicated and varied from car to car, seat to seat. One of the benefits of LATCH is that, in theory, the regulations would produce a set of common elements that would be instantly recognizable, allowing seats to be moved quickly and easily among different cars.

The "lower anchor" part of LATCH was designed so that car seats no longer need to be strapped in with the car's seat belts -- it was confusing to know which belts to use, where they attached to or how they were supposed to be fed through the car seat and how they should be fastened. And there's no room for error.

Each LATCH installation location has two metal bars that protrude slightly from the lower part of the seat. The top tethers get three anchor points (the locations vary depending on the type of vehicle, usually on the rear shelf for small cars and various other locations for vans or SUVs). Parents can still use the lower belts instead of the lower anchors if they choose, which (again) can be confusing.

As always, consult the owner's and instruction manuals for your specific car seat and car. Even though the system is designed to be universal, different types of cars, from convertibles to SUVs, vary so greatly that carmakers, seat designers and government regulators have had to meet in the middle. The system is simpler because all the basic components are the same, but a few minutes of research will help ensure the seat is properly latched in place.

A Consumer Reports examination found that LATCH definitely makes it easier to locate everything that needs to be connected, but that making all the connections required can still induce a headache. At least, the magazine noted, the process of installing a LATCH-equipped seat lends the confidence that it was done correctly and that the seat will remain in place. As Consumer Reports found, the LATCH system in some vehicles are really easy to use. Others are a lot more complicated. One SUV, for example, required the rear seats to fold down to access the anchors, which was nearly impossible because the car seat was already on the seat, occupying the space necessary for the seat to fold. Other critics of the system point out that, by introducing inconsistencies and decision-making in the process, LATCH might be defeating its own purpose.

Buying a car seat should be as simple as determining which seat is the best fit for your child.

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4: LATCH Might Make it Easier to Select a Car Seat

Wait...that might be a bit misleading.

In theory, LATCH makes it easier to select a car seat, because all new car seats must meet LATCH standards and regulations. So buying a car seat should be as simple as determining which seat will be the best fit for your child. The decision should be simple if all seats meet the same standards, which would seem to indicate quality and effectiveness amongst brands and designs are close, if not actually equal. Comparison shopping should be somewhat simplified, right?

The truth is, manufacturers and marketers always try to one-up each other, even as they maintain the appearance of playing government-regulated nice. That's simply how it is -- a car seat is effective if it saves your child. A car seat is even more effective if more units are sold than the competitor's car seat. So it can be a bit confusing to hear "LATCH is universal!" and walk into a store and be faced with boxes boasting "Our LATCH is better than their LATCH!" But it happens. There are more than 40 companies that make automotive child restraint systems. So, since the introduction of LATCH, children's product manufacturers have designed "super" LATCH hardware and "easier" LATCH installations, and some have even trademarked product names that feature or play off the LATCH acronym. We can't tell you whether these are better than competitors' seats or not. Just use your own judgment when wading through marketing-speak.

So even though you can rest assured the seats on the store shelves all meet government safety requirements, there are still some choices for you to make. Read the sizing information to ensure the seat is appropriate for your child's height and weight. Make a list of the models you like and look online for reviews and information about possible safety recalls. And then, maybe you can attempt to have some fun coordinating color and fabric choices to your car's interior or your baby's favorite blanket.

3: Every Car has at Least Two LATCH-designated Spots

One of the decisions that LATCH is supposed to remove from the equation is "Where in the car should the seat be installed?" In previous vehicle (and seat) generations, figuring out the best mounting points were often a problem. It's difficult to navigate the maze of seatbelts in the backseat of most cars (which belt half pairs to where?) and a combination of shoulder harnesses and slack, manually-tightened lap belts made for messy and uncertain installation.

So, LATCH came along and, again, promised to make it easier.

Each LATCH-ready car is supposed to feature at least two sets of lower anchors and corresponding tethers. For the purposes of symmetry (one could reason), in cars with the minimum two sets of anchors (which is to say, most cars, with the exception of some SUVs and vans), the anchors are found on opposite sides of the backseat. In other words, the anchors implore the car seats to be installed next to the windows and doors.

But, critics howled, tradition and common sense dictate that the safest place for a child is in the middle of the backseat, away from the doors that might fly open in a crash, and away from the windows that will probably shatter! This goes against everything we've been told for years!

Well, replied automakers and seat designers and government safety experts, if you really want to, you can use the leftmost anchor on the passenger side, and the rightmost anchor on the driver side, as a set of center anchors so the seat can be installed in the middle. But, it won't be safe in every situation. The required anchors can't be much farther apart than the anchors normally are -- in other words, there can't be huge gaps between the seat base and the anchors that would allow slack for the seat to slide around. (Experts recommend no more than 1 inch (2.54 centimeters) of space between the anchor hardware and the seat mounting point.) The fit and installation must be as snug as it would if the seat was installed in the "official" location, and the tethers must hold the seat firmly in place, with no leeway to tip forward.

So, if you have a LATCH-equipped car, you'll have two obviously-designated mounting points, and if your old notions of safety standards overrule the new standards, then you have a little flexibility, even if the whole point is to avoid flexibility. At least it's easier to install the seats when they're right next to the doors. And besides, if there was one middle seat and one side seat, parents would essentially have to choose a favorite child each time the family took a car trip, putting one child at less risk than another.

Automakers are encouraged to provide compatibility information that helps consumers select car safety seats that fit best in their cars.

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2: LATCH is Safer

Research has shown that the flexibility in the LATCH system, though minor, leads to confusion. People often install components incorrectly. Others wrongly assume that because one part of the system offers a choice (like whether to use a seatbelt in lieu of the lower anchors), other parts are also optional (such as neglecting the upper tether system).

The recent rise in childhood obesity has also led to problems. Parents might not realize their child exceeds the weight limit for a specific seat model if the height and age are within the correct range.

But once these problems were pointed out, they were quickly addressed. Many manufacturers' websites even offer videos demonstrating correct installation. And the NHTSA is encouraging automakers to provide compatibility information that helps consumers select car safety seats that fit best in their cars. However, it is up to parents to ensure their children are in proper health and that they are correctly fitted to their car safety seats.

So why is LATCH supposedly better, despite all these caveats? Unfortunately, it's often a leap of faith that the car safety seat is installed correctly. But once it is, the top tethers improve safety because old seats that strapped only across the bottom were prone to tipping forward in a crash. Even if the child remained strapped in the seat, head injuries were common, as a result of hitting something (like the back of the front seats) or head trauma from being tossed around. The bottom anchors were designed to keep the seat base more firmly in place against the bottom and back of the car's backseat, and eliminate the freeplay that was common with ill-fitting seatbelt installation.

As long as LATCH is properly used, infant safety seats should remain firmly in place in most crashes, which definitely improves your child's chances of emerging unscathed.

1: LATCH is a Collaborative Effort

Because LATCH is a government-mandated program, initiated and regulated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, "collaborative" might not be the first descriptor that comes to mind. Even though the standards were designed to simplify infant safety seat selection and installation, thus increasing overall safety, the initiative has recently inspired discussion about how to improve automotive safety for children and reduce the staggering number of car crash-related injuries and fatalities.

Automakers and car safety seat manufacturers were given a lot of advance warning before the new rules kicked in. Designers and engineers had about a decade to figure out and implement ways to comply with LATCH regulations, but as the systems were rolled out, it became clear that simply adhering to the specs laid out by the NHTSA still left a lot of room for interpretation. It's inevitable that things weren't guaranteed to quite line up. Some examples: Since cars are not all the same width, their backseats are not of uniform size and are all segmented differently, which means that positioning of the lower anchors will change somewhat from vehicle to vehicle. In sedans, the upper tethers are usually attached to the shelf between the backseat and the rear windshield; in SUVs, the tether points might be found on the pillars or maybe even the roof. Things like that. It was pretty much that every manufacturer was out for themselves, and no one knew if the LATCH program would be effective until the products actually reached consumers.

The resulting inconveniences sent the message that a set of standards simply wasn't enough to get the job done, because LATCH wasn't much easier to use than the previous free-for-all generations of infant safety seats. People were still installing seats incorrectly, confused by the variations in a system that was supposed to be foolproof. But in the years since LATCH's mandated rollout, some things have gotten simpler. In fact, Edmunds.com reported in fall of 2011 that automakers and infant safety seat manufacturers are opening the lines of communication, hoping to implement and design products that are complementary. Marketers are finding new ways to reach consumers, such as informational videos and online tutorials. These guides are helpful, and there's another beneficial side effect. These interactive and technology developments send the message that parents also need to take responsibility for their kids' safety, and should use whatever resources are available to improve their families' health and well being.

Sometimes, a good idea just needs a bit of group effort for the pieces to fall into place. LATCH has shown that if lawmakers, manufacturers and parents continue to work together, it can only mean good things for future automotive safety improvements.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 5 Benefits of the LATCH System for Car Seats

Most of the sources gave the same information about what LATCH is, why it exists, and "benefits" that might not really be benefits. That was all easy. But the more interesting aspects of LATCH -- the delicate dance that must occur to achieve any kind of results between the government and the auto industry -- were notably absent. On the surface, it's simple: The lawmakers pass laws, and if carmakers want to sell cars, they must fall in line. Aftermarket accessories manufacturers (in this case, the makers of infant car seats) also have no choice if they want to keep selling their products.

What's interesting is that LATCH is another example of a new procedure that's supposed to simplify things, but doesn't always work. Because automakers and car seat manufacturers weren't provided exact specifications, a lot of the law was left open to interpretation, resulting in a lot of variables. It's not that the industry doesn't want to protect children -- it's that everyone thinks they've figured out a better and less expensive way to do it, without dramatically altering existing procedures. And alas, LATCH still requires a lot more explanation than it should. The ubiquitous line "Check your owner's manual" isn't some boilerplate recommended by the manufacturer's legal team. It really might be necessary to do some research to negotiate the hooks and straps that should line up between the car and car seat, but oftentimes don't. Even if LATCH isn't necessarily easier, experts seem to agree that LATCH has improved car seat safety.

Related ArticlesSources
  • Car-Safety.org. "Car-Safety.org information on LATCH." (March 22, 2012) http://www.car-safety.org/latch.html
  • Consumer Reports. "Child seats LATCH for safety." February 2011. (March 22, 2012) http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/cars/new-cars/news/2006/child-seats-latch-for-safety-8-06/overview/0608_child-seats-latch-for-safety_ov.htm
  • Doheny, Kathleen. "Making Child Safety Seats and LATCH More User-Friendly." Edmunds.com. Oct. 11, 2011. (March 26, 2012) http://www.edmunds.com/car-safety/making-child-safety-seats-and-latch-more-user-friendly.html
  • Evenflo. "Symphony65 Car Seat Installation Made Easier." (March 27, 2012) http://www.evenflo.com/sme_symphony.aspx?id=435
  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) Restraint System." (March 22, 2012) http://www.nhtsa.gov/Safety/LATCH