LATCH system for child seats safety

Learn more about how these vehicle anchors work

Last updated: January 2014

Summer heat, heavy rain, and cold, driving snow can make it difficult to get even the best-behaved children out of the house and into the car. Installing a child safety seat in such conditions might not only make the job difficult, it could lead to an improper installation. The legislated implementation of the Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) system for new cars was intended to make car-seat installation easier and safer. As Consumer Reports has found, LATCH systems help eliminate some installation issues encountered when using the safety belts. But some auto manufacturers could improve where they place the anchors.

History of LATCH

LATCH was designed with two objectives in mind:

  • Make the installation of child seats easier.
  • Eliminate the safety-belt incompatibilities.

Federal rules mandated that as of Sept. 1, 1999, top tether anchors must be in place in new cars and top tether straps must be on all front-facing child seats. When cinched tight, a top tether provides added security by preventing the child seat from tipping forward in a crash, and therefore limiting the movement of a child's head.

Lower anchors were phased in by law starting in 2000, and they are now required in almost all cars and light trucks less than 8,500 pounds. The corresponding hooks were required in all child-safety seats manufactured on or after September 1, 2002.

Based on our tests of both the child safety seats and vehicles, LATCH has really accomplished only the second objective. Consumer Reports Director of Operations at our Auto Test Center and Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician Jennifer Stockburger notes that "installing a child restraint with LATCH is still quite a chore, as you need to make multiple connections to anchors that aren't always easy to find and reach. At least with LATCH, when you get all of that done you can be fairly sure that you have a tight fit, something you're not always sure of with the safety belts."

However, 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. New labeling rules in effect in February 2014 are aimed to help 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. For more on the new labels, see our blog.

Safety-belt installation

LATCH systems help avoid common problems with belt fastening, such as a tilting base.

Installing a child seat with safety belts is a difficult process that often leaves the child less secure than you might hope. In fact, up to 75 percent of child seats are installed incorrectly or used improperly.

With all such models, the belt is threaded through a path in the structure of the child seat and then clicked into place. Slack must be taken out of the belt to keep the seat snug. However, belts that have anchors narrower than the child seat base or belts that originate far from the center of the child seat increase the chances that the seat can twist or move side-to-side. The safety belts in many cars are also anchored far forward of the seatback, making it nearly impossible to get the seat secure. The way some shoulder belts are routed can also allow the child seat to tip during a turn. When this happens, the safety belt often ratchets back on the additional slack and the seat stays in a semi-tipped position.

The promise of LATCH

A readily accessible LATCH anchor can ease seat installation.

Many of the safety-belt-related problems can be eliminated with LATCH. The lower anchors are positioned in or near the gap between the seat cushion and the bottom of the seat back. When the straps on the child seat are tightened, they pull the seat firmly against the seatback and prevent it from twisting or tipping. When the top tether is attached, the seat can't pitch forward, putting the child in a safer position.

While it is recommended, but not necessary, to use the top tether when installing the seat with the safety belts, top tethers are a critical component of the LATCH system when used to install forward facing seats because otherwise only the bottom of the seat is secured (by the lower anchors). Without use of the top tether, the child seat can pitch forward in a sudden stop.

The reality of LATCH

This LATCH is more difficult to access behind the seat cushions.

Unfortunately, there are factors that can make installation of LATCH-equipped seats difficult or, in some cases, impossible.

Typically, the safest spot to install a child seat is in the center position of the rear seat. That positions the child farthest from danger in an impact. Unfortunately, most vehicles don't equip their vehicles with lower anchors in the center seats. Chrysler Group and General Motors are good at providing three sets of attachments in their larger vehicles, and Ford owner's manuals often allow for child seats to be positioned in the middle using the inner anchors from the left and right side LATCH anchors.

Access to the lower anchors varies from vehicle to vehicle; the best anchors allow the seat to quickly click or be hooked into place, while others make it awkward to attach and/or detach. Some vehicles have very firm seat cushions, making it difficult to fit your hand in to find and access the anchor. Other vehicles have soft cushions, but the anchor is recessed so far back that it's difficult to reach. Optimally located lower anchors provide enough space for an adult hand to easily access them.

Getting to the top tethers can also be a difficult and frustrating process. Many vehicles have well-positioned anchors that are readily accessible; parents can simply run the top tether under the head restraint and clip it into the top tether anchor. Never run the tether over a removable or adjustable head restraint because the soft material in the head restraint can compress and create slack in the tether strap. It is better to remove or raise the restraint and run the tether over the seatback.

Of all vehicle types, sedans generally have tether anchors that are easiest to reach, located on the rear deck behind the seats, typically set inside a small, covered recess. Wagons, SUVs, and hatchbacks with good tether anchors have them positioned midway up the back of the seats, sometimes with plastic covers that snap in place when they aren't being used. Ideal setups provide one top tether anchor for each seat location, so the straps are anchored straight back without twisting.

But many wagons and hatchbacks also have less-friendly tether anchor locations. Some place the anchors at the base of the seat where it folds. These can be a full arm's-length away, making them already difficult to reach. To access this anchor from within the cabin, it may be necessary to tilt the seatback forward--a challenging maneuver if a large child seat is already on the vehicle's seat. Other models place the tether anchors beneath carpet or covers in the cargo floor.

Hatchbacks and wagons also often have a cargo cover that protects luggage from the sun or the prying eyes of thieves. But the space between the cargo cover and the seatback is often very narrow, making it impossible to fit the tether strap through. The cover must be removed to access and install the tether strap, which is just another annoyance to deal with and adds to the potential for parents or caregivers to opt out of a crucial step.

What consumers can do

Make sure that you thoroughly read the owner's manual for your vehicle and the instructions for your child's seat to give you the best chance of getting the most secure fit.

It is important for consumers to make sure they consider how their child's seat is going to fit in any vehicle they are considering for purchase. Take your seat(s) and child(ren) with you to the dealership and practice installing them to make sure you're comfortable with the process in advance, rather than struggling to learn when you're under pressure. This is also a good opportunity to make sure the child is comfortable in the vehicle.

If you are looking to buy a new child seat, try it in the store parking lot before buying if possible, or at least test-fit the seat right after it is purchased. If you encounter a problem with the seat or installation or an incompatibility with your car, head right back to the store and exchange the seat for another one that may fit better.

Check with local police or fire departments or hospitals to see when free child-seat inspections are offered to have a trained professional verify that the seat is installed properly, or to correct any problems.

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