The top tether and forward-facing car seat installations

Consumer Reports News: June 11, 2009 03:11 PM

After getting a new car recently, my parents wanted to move the toddler booster seat they keep in their car for my daughter to their newer, safer vehicle. I appreciated their idea, and watched as my husband made the switch. Since he has installed our kids’ car seats in a variety of vehicles, I was surprised that he was unable to install it, even after several minutes of trying.

Installing a car seat is difficult, and the variations among child seats and cars’ back seats don’t make it any easier. Adding to the difficulty is the installation of the top tether, a strap built into the top of the child seat with a hook at the end that fastens on to an anchor in cars equipped with the LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) system. Consumers often install it incorrectly or overlook the top tether entirely. You’ll likely find top tether anchors on the rear parcel shelf for sedans (see image above, left) and on the rear seatbacks for SUVs and hatchbacks (see image above, right).

In a survey conducted in 2006 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, only about half of the child safety seats installed in a vehicle equipped with an upper tether anchor were actually attached to the vehicle using a top tether, mainly because people didn’t know how to use it or didn’t think using it was necessary. We recently tested forward-facing convertible car seats both with and without top tethers. Based on those results, children are less likely to sustain injury in seats where the top tethers are attached. (See our new convertible car seat Ratings.)

I suggested that my husband consult the car’s instruction manual, which seemed to be the answer. Sure enough, the installation was very different from any we’d done before, particularly the installation of the top tether, which differed from the way it’s installed in our car.

Top tethers, when available, should always be attached for forward-facing seats, whether the seat is installed with the seatbelts or the LATCH system. Find more installation tips at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s LATCH page. If your vehicle isn’t equipped with a top tether anchor (many cars manufactured before 2002 don’t have them), ask your dealer about having one installed.

--Artemis DiBenedetto, Web associate editor

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