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Common mistakes when installing child car seats: What to watch for

Consumer Reports News: September 17, 2010 05:08 AM

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Installing child car seats can be a complicated and often confusing task, due in part to the variability of car seat and vehicle designs—and how easy they make the job of car seat installation. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently evaluated car-seat installations by participants with varying levels of experience and described what they found in their report, Drivers' Mistakes When Installing Child Seats. Despite the fact that participants believed they had done things right, newcomers asked to install an infant seat did the job wrong between 95 and 100 percent of the time. Results for more experienced installers were better, but still not encouraging. We have some tips for remedying some of the problems they found, just in time for Child Passenger Safety Week—September 19-25th 2010. (See video on choosing and installing a car seat here, and above; and our ratings of infant seats, convertible car seats, toddler booster seats and booster seats, available to subscribers.)

Here at Consumer Reports, as part of our evaluations of child car seats, we perform hundreds of car-seat installations in different test vehicles. (Learn more about how we test car seats for ease of use.) We also maintain our certifications as Child Passenger Safety (CPS) Technicians to keep up with the latest car-seat technologies, and see what parents and caregivers face within their own vehicles. Even with our combined experience, we routinely find ourselves challenged by complicated car-seat instruction manuals and installations. If we’re having such a hard time, we wonder, how would a parent who doesn’t have much experience figure all this out? NHTSA’s study addressed that same question.

For the report, NHTSA evaluators asked participants—all with varying degrees of experience—to install the child car seats to the best of their ability. During and after the installations, participants were asked to identify areas where they experienced confusion; rate their confidence in doing the task correctly; and rate the usability of the seats they used. CPS technicians observing the installations also identified the areas where the participants made errors.

The result? Despite the fact that participants were “overly confident” that they had successfully performed a correct installation, error rates were disconcertingly high—and not surprisingly, they were worst among those with the least experience. Those who had little or no experience, who were asked install a rear-facing infant seat, installed the seats incorrectly 100% of the time when using a seatbelt, and 95% of the time when installing with LATCH connectors. In fact, many of the novice participants had little or no knowledge of the LATCH system itself—even though they had the feature in their car. (See Recommended vehicles that make car seat installation easier.)

The results for inexperienced participants were better when they were asked to install convertible car seats (both rear- and forward-facing)—but not that much better. This group installed the car seats too loosely 85% of the time, at the incorrect angle 82% of the time (see Why infant car-seat angle is so important), and with twisted lower-anchor straps 50% of the time.

Of the parents and caregivers who already owned and used child seats, the mistakes were similar but less frequent. Loose seats were found between 47-65 percent of the time, and incorrect rear-facing angle was found between 27-50 percent of the time depending on the installation used.

Here is advice for avoiding mistakes commonly made when installing car seats:

Consult both the car seat manual and the vehicle owner’s manual for installation instructions. Though participants were provided with both manuals and most (94%) read the child restraint owner’s manual, only about 36% of the participants referred to the vehicle owner’s manual they were provided. Participants suggested improvements—including clearer diagrams and easier set-up guides with fewer steps, and numerous parents and novice participants commented on the overwhelming choices and options with child seats. Because key information can be found in both car seat and vehicle guides, the best practice is to carefully read both sources before you get started.

Avoid loose seat installations. When securely installed, a child seat should move no more than 1”, in either a front-to-back or side-to-side direction. If it’s not, the car seat and the vehicle seat may not be a compatible match. In that case, try an alternate seating location. Seatbelts that are located forward of the seatback can make it difficult to get a secure fit. Using LATCH or a locking clip can provide a secure installation. For a more secure LATCH installation, pull the LATCH straps into the belt path. (See our Tricks-of-the-trade section for more advice.)

Get the rear-facing angle right. The recline angle of rear-facing infant car seats is designed to provide the smallest babies with enough recline to keep their head back and prevent it from falling forward and potentially obstructing their airway; but not too reclined to jeopardize the child in a crash. Usually the correct recline angle is somewhere between 30-45 degrees back from an upright starting point, depending on the seat. The correct car seat recline angle is especially important for preemies, who may already have respiratory difficulties and are often checked in their child restraint for breathing and oxygenation before they even leave the hospital.

When it comes to getting the right angle, always refer to the child car seat manufacturer’s instructions, and install the seat at the recline angle designated by the instructions or the recline indicator on the seat itself. In many cases this may mean using the recline adjustment knob or other adjuster on the seat itself, or adding a rolled towel beneath the seat to reach that angle. Newer seats sometimes have “two-zone” recline indicators—one for younger babies and another that’s more upright as your baby grows—but referring to the instructions and periodically checking your child’s seat is critically important.

Use LATCH or seatbelt installation—not both simultaneously. Participants in the NHTSA study resorted to using both installation methods for “added security” when they weren’t successful at achieving a secure installation with one. But most child restraint manufacturers still suggest using one or the other, not both, when installing child seats. In our own car seat evaluations, we have been more likely to get a secure fit with LATCH, though there are many seats that install securely with seat belts as well. If you don’t have success with one method, try the other—but don’t try both, together. 

Attach the top tether. Use of the car seat's top tether has been shown to reduce injuries and forward-movement of the child’s body, especially the head. And we have shown this in our own tests. To avoid injury to child passengers, top tethers should always be used with forward-facing child restraints. 

Get some help, to be safe. Even though you may be confident that you’ve done everything right, it’s in your best interest—and especially your child’s—to confirm that you have, by visiting a car seat inspection event in your area. To find one, go to NHTSA’s homepage and search by ZIP code or go to And since National Seat Check Saturday is happening September 25th (as part of Child Passenger Safety Week, September 19-25th), that may be a good time to find a local inspection station, as many are happening nationwide. Watch for one in your local papers or news.

What can car seat and vehicle manufacturers do? NHTSA had the following suggestions for child restraint and vehicle manufacturers to help make car seat installation easier for consumers:

  • Intuitively design child restraints, and clearly guide parents and caregivers on the main steps to follow for installation. Label child restraints to provide location cues for such things as correct handle and chest clip positions.
  • Improve the LATCH symbols within vehicles to help locate the anchor points.
  • Make sure that child restraint and vehicle labels and manuals agree and do not provide conflicting or missing information to consumers.
  • Anticipate common errors, and modify designs to reduce their potential; or add troubleshooting sections to the manual to address them.

—Jennifer Stockburger, vehicle and child safety program manager

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