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What parents need to know about the new LATCH car seat rule

Find out what the new law means and how you can make sure your child is properly secured

Published: August 09, 2013 03:30 PM

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Vehicle LATCH anchors were mandated in 2002 as a way for parents to more easily secure a child safety seat rather than using the vehicle’s seat belt, but an update to the law may have many parents switching to using seat-belt installations.

LATCH, which stands for “Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children,” was developed to help parents more easily install seats in cars and eliminate seat-belt incompatibilities. What you may not know is that the LATCH anchors are currently designed for a maximum combined weight of the child and child seat of 65 lbs. Depending on what manufacturers estimate to be the weight of the average child seat, many limit LATCH use to between 40 and 48 lbs. Once children exceed this weight, the seat must be installed using the vehicle seat belt, not LATCH. That information is sometimes listed in the vehicle’s owner’s manual, but in most cases, it is not readily available. The weight limit on the lower anchors is designed to prevent over-stressing the anchors in the event of a crash.

Which car seat should you buy?  See our Ratings and buying advice to find out which is right for your child.

To help alert people to the fact that LATCH has a limit for use, starting in February 2014, new labeling will be required to help clarify what the limits of LATCH are for each seat. The revised labeling requirements are intended to make it clearer that a child’s weight determines how long LATCH can be used and to make the limit readily identifiable for each seat. Although the focus is on new seats, it would seem to us the guidance applies to current seats, as well.

The Alliance of Automotive Manufacturers helped lead the charge for the new law because the weight of the child seat was not being considered in the strength limit of the LATCH anchors. This move appears to protect automakers, especially as children and car seats tend to weigh more now than when the original standard was created, putting increased strain on the anchors. While improved labeling is beneficial, we would favor regulation that instead protects children by strengthening the anchors.

Unfortunately for parents who purchase seats with higher harness capacities, the new labeling will effectively decrease the amount of time a car seat can be installed with LATCH. Child seats typically weigh between 15 to 33 lbs., so labels for heavier seats will now indicate that a child as light as 32 lbs., which could be as young as 2-years old, may not be able to use a child restraint installed with the LATCH system. We are concerned that due to seat-belt incompatibility, this may discourage parents from keeping their kids in a harnessed seat longer, and they will prematurely transition to an easier-to-install booster seat—a step down in safety. There is also the potential for more improperly installed car seats, as studies have shown incorrect installation is more common when using a seat belt.

Consumer Reports’ fit-to-vehicle and crash testing data leads us to believe that LATCH should be considered as the preferred method of car seat installation. The LATCH system makes it easier to achieve a secure installation and results in less forward movement in a crash when compared with seat belts. Consumer Reports and other child passenger safety experts would have preferred a standard requiring the lower anchors be designed to a higher strength, so LATCH could be used longer.

This new ruling also only affects the lower anchors, not the top tether, so it does nothing to address the confusion and non-use of tethers. We advise always using the top tether for forward-facing seats, regardless of whether they are installed using the belts or LATCH to help limit forward motion of the seat and child in a sudden stop or crash.

It is always a good idea to have your installation checked by a child passenger safety technician. Visit Safekids.org to find a local fitting station.

To find out which car seat is right for you, see our Ratings and buying advice of infant, convertible, and booster car seats. Also, check out our kids and car safety special section for advice on installing car seats properly and safe driving with kids.

—Liza Barth

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