IIHS: Rear Seats Make It Tough To Fit Child Seats

April 12, 2012

If you’re a parent having a hard time getting your child’s car seat installed the right way, it might not be entirely your fault, and you’re not alone.

A new study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) finds that the designs of rear seats in vehicles often work against parents trying to install them correctly.

In the study, a joint effort between the IIHS and the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), only 21 of the 98 top-selling 2010 and 2011 model passenger vehicles evaluated  (cars, station wagons, minivans, SUVs and pickups) had Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) designs that were easy to use.

The primary goal of LATCH is ensure that more children are properly restrained by making child seat installation easier. But the conclusion of researchers in this study is that many automakers aren’t paying attention to the key factors that actually make LATCH work. These factors for the lower anchors are:

  • Depth – Lower anchors should be no more than ¾ deep in the seat bight (where the bottom cushion meets the seat back) and should be clearly visible.
  • Clearance – There should be nothing obstructing access to the anchors. This includes safety belt buckles and hardware, seat material (foam, cloth or leather) that should not get in the way of attaching child seat connectors. Anchors should also have enough room around them for parents and caregivers to approach them head on and at an angle, making hooking or snapping on the connectors and tightening LATCH straps easier. The study found that a clearance angle of at least 54 degrees worked best for easier installation.
  • Force – Parents should be able to install child restraints by using less than 40 pounds of force. The study found that some child seats require a lot of effort to attach the anchors, either because the anchors are too deep within the bight or surrounding seat parts interfere with them.

Common problems found

Researchers found a couple of common problems during the study. One is that safety belt buckles, plastic housing or seats interfere with or obscure the lower anchors. Another is that anchors are often buried deep within the back seat cushions, causing parents to have to dig around to find them. Only 36 of 98 vehicles had anchors that were visible. Researchers considered anchors visible if they were easy to see or could be seen by removing a cover that was prominently marked.

Federal rules mandate the number of seating positions that must have LATCH, lower anchor size and how far apart they must be, and, if the lower anchors aren’t visible, seat markers must indicate their location. But other design details are left up to the automakers. There are no regulations specifying a limit on how much force must be used to connect the child restraint to the LATCH or the anchor depth in the seat bight.

Other study findings

Another finding of the study is that only seven of 98 vehicles evaluated had dedicated LATCH systems in the center, second-row seats. This is despite the fact that the center, second-row seat is the safest place for children to ride. Nine vehicles allowed “borrowing” of anchors from outboard seats, while 82 vehicles had no center anchors at all. Looking at the 21 minivans and SUVs with third rows studied, 11 had no lower anchors in the third row.

While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) requires passenger vehicles with rear seats to have a minimum of two seating positions with lower anchors and three with tethers, researchers found few vehicles with more than the minimum requirements. Just 16 of 98 vehicles had three or more pairs of lower anchors in the back seats and only 10 vehicles had more than the three tether anchors required.

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