If you've ever tried installing an infant car seat in say, a Jaguar XKR, you understand that just because a car has LATCH anchors doesn't mean your car seat is going to fit. Those anchors are supposed to make child restraint installation a breeze, but according to a new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, many automakers aren't following the spirit of the law requiring them.

The study looked at the 98 top-selling vehicles from 2010-2011 and found just 21 that met its criteria for having "easy-to-use" LATCH hardware. Making the list were the Audi A4; Cadillac Escalade; Chevrolet Equinox, Silverado, Suburban and Tahoe; Chrysler Town & Country; Dodge Caliber, Grand Caravan and Ram; Ford Escape and F-150; GMC Sierra; Honda Pilot; Kia Sedona; Land Rover Range Rover Sport; Mercedes-Benz C-Class and E-Class; Mitsubishi Eclipse and Lancer; and Toyota Tacoma.

The researchers used a test fixture that adhered to guidelines developed by the Society of Automotive Engineers to develop three criteria for evaluation. The first was having anchors that were easy to see and not buried beneath rear seat cushions. The second was having the LATCH attachment points unobstructed by seatbelts, foam or other parts of the seat. The third was that adults could correctly install the seats using less than 40 pounds of force.

While the study found that the majority of models didn't nail all three criteria, the list of vehicles that didn't meet any of them was much shorter: Buick Enclave; Chevrolet Impala; Dodge Avenger; Ford Flex and Taurus; Hyundai Sonata; and Toyota Sienna.

Scroll down to see a video about LATCH and read the full release from IIHS.

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Vehicle seat designs make child restraint installation difficult;
Less than a quarter of models surveyed have easy-to-use LATCH

ARLINGTON, Va. - Installing child restraints can frustrate even the most capable of parents. A system called Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children is supposed to make things easier by standardizing attachment hardware, but a new study shows that many automakers aren't paying attention to the key factors that make LATCH work. Only 21 of the 98 top-selling 2010-11 model passenger vehicles evaluated have LATCH designs that are easy to use. This is the main finding of joint research conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI).

The researchers scrutinized LATCH hardware and rear seat designs in a range of passenger vehicles to determine the key vehicle characteristics that would help LATCH live up to its billing. The Institute, UMTRI and other safety groups have previously pointed out usability issues with LATCH.

"Installing a child restraint isn't always as simple as a couple of clicks and you're done," says Anne McCartt, the Institute's senior vice president for research and one of the report's authors. "Sometimes parents blame themselves when they struggle with LATCH, but oftentimes the problem lies with the vehicle, not the user."

The goal of LATCH is to increase the number of children who ride properly restrained by making child restraints easier to install. Consumers who drive 2003 and later models likely have encountered the system. LATCH has two distinct components: lower attachments on child restraints that connect to anchors at the vehicle seat bight (where the bottom cushion meets the seat back) and top tethers on forward-facing restraints that attach to anchors on the vehicle's rear shelf, seat back, floor, cargo area or ceiling. Tethers help prevent child restraints from moving too far forward during crashes, putting children at risk of head or neck injuries.

UMTRI researchers reviewed LATCH hardware and rear seats in cars, minivans, pickups, station wagons and SUVs. To measure and assess how child restraints fit in each vehicle, they used a test fixture and other tools in line with 2009 draft guidelines developed by a Society of Automotive Engineers working group. They then picked 12 vehicles representing a range of LATCH setups and asked 36 volunteers to each install three different types of child restraints in three of the vehicles.

Researchers identified three factors associated with correct lower anchor use: depth, clearance and force.

Depth: Lower anchors should be located no more than 3/4 inch deep in the seat bight and should be easy to see.
Clearance: Nothing should obstruct access to the anchors. Safety belt buckles and other hardware plus the foam, cloth or leather material of the seats themselves shouldn't get in the way of attaching child seat connectors. There should be enough room around the anchors to approach them at an angle, as well as straight-on. This makes it easier to hook or snap on connectors and also tighten LATCH straps. In the study, a clearance angle of at least 54 degrees was associated with easier installation.
Force: Parents should be able to install child restraints using less than 40 pounds of force. Some systems require lots of effort to properly attach child seat hardware with lower anchors, in part because they are deep in the seat bight or surrounded by interfering parts of the vehicle seat.

All three factors are related and are good predictors of how well people are able to correctly install child restraints. Vehicles meeting the criteria were 19 times as likely to have lower anchors used correctly by the volunteers compared with vehicles that don't meet any of the criteria.

"These are things that automakers can do to improve child restraint installations, and most of them aren't hard," McCartt says. "Lower anchors can be designed so they are easy to use."

One common problem researchers encountered in the lab is that safety belt buckles, plastic housing or vehicle seats obscure or interfere with lower anchors. Another issue is that the anchors are sometimes buried deep within the back seats, so parents might have to dig around in the cushions to find them. Lower anchors were visible in just 36 of the 98 study vehicles. Researchers considered the anchors visible if they were easy to see or could be seen by removing a prominently marked cover.

Federal rules dictate the minimum number of seating positions that must have LATCH, the size of the lower anchors and how far apart they can be situated. If the lower anchors aren't visible, markers on the seats must indicate their location. Other design details are left up to automakers. For instance, the regulations don't specify anchor depth within the seat bight or limit how hard someone has to push on a child restraint to connect LATCH. Researchers found that these factors affect the likelihood that people will install child restraints correctly.

Another finding is that only seven of the 98 vehicles surveyed have dedicated LATCH anchors in the center, second-row seats, even though that is the safest place for children to travel. Nine vehicles allow borrowing of anchors from the outboard seats, and 82 have no center anchors at all. In the 21 minivans and SUVs with third rows, 11 have no lower anchors at all in these seats.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration requires passenger vehicles with rear seats to have a minimum of two seating positions with lower anchors and three seating positions with tether anchors. Few vehicles offer more than the minimum number of required anchors, researchers found. Only 16 of the 98 models surveyed had three or more pairs of lower anchors in back seats, while just 10 vehicles offered more than the three required tether anchors.

Volunteer installations: In the study, parents correctly used the lower anchors 60 percent of the time. Volunteers who correctly used anchors were more than three times as likely to get a tight fit as volunteers who didn't use them the right way. When anchors were misused, common mistakes included not orienting the connectors properly, attaching them to the wrong hardware and not snapping them in all the way. Twisted straps also counted as an error.

Certified child passenger safety technicians evaluated the installations. They deemed them tight if the restraint didn't move more than an inch sideways or back and forth when pulled. All of the participants currently used child seats in their own vehicles. If they had questions about how to install the seats in the study they could consult owners' manuals but received no other assistance.

Tethers aren't optional: Volunteers used top tethers just 48 percent of the time with forward-facing child restraints. When tethers were used, 54 percent of the installations were incorrect. Leaving too much slack in the strap was a common error. Another was attaching tethers to the wrong hardware.

Overall, parents and caregivers correctly installed seats with lower anchors and top tethers to get a tight, secure fit at the right angle in just 13 percent of the cases.

"With tethers, the main issue is use, not usability," says Kathy Klinich, assistant research scientist at UMTRI and the study's lead author. "Many parents don't realize they are supposed to use the tether."

Previous studies have shown that many people neglect to use tethers. A 2010 Institute survey found tethers in use 43 percent of the time, about the same as in the mid-1970s.

"Tethers should be used with all forward-facing child restraints, even if parents opt to secure seats with safety belts instead of lower anchors," Klinich says. "We need to better educate people about tether use."

Making LATCH easier to use might encourage more parents to use child restraints and install them correctly, McCartt says. In 2010, 29 percent of children 1-3 years old and 12 percent of infants younger than 1 who died in crashes were riding unrestrained. Those numbers mark a sharp improvement over 1985, when 71 percent of children ages 1-3 and 35 percent of infants killed in crashes were unrestrained.

"Getting kids into the right restraints for their age and size is the first step," McCartt says. "The next is to install the seats correctly because research shows this improves protection. This is where LATCH can help."

2011 models that meet all 3 easy-installation criteria

Audi A4 Quattro
Cadillac Escalade
Chevrolet Equinox LT
Chevrolet Silverado 1500 crew cab
Chevrolet Suburban LT
Chevrolet Tahoe LS
Chrysler Town & Country (2010)
Dodge Caliber Mainstreet
Dodge Grand Caravan Crew
Dodge Ram 1500 crew cab
Ford Escape XLT
Ford F-150 SuperCrew Cab
GMC Sierra 1500 crew cab SLE
Honda Pilot EX-L
Kia Sedona LX
Land Rover Range Rover Sport
Mercedes-Benz C300
Mercedes-Benz E350
Mitsubishi Eclipse coupe GS
Mitsubishi Lancer ES
Toyota Tacoma extended cab

2011 models that don't meet any easy-installation criteria

Buick Enclave CX
Chevrolet Impala LT
Dodge Avenger Express
Ford Flex SEL
Ford Taurus Limited
Hyundai Sonata Limited
Toyota Sienna XLE

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 3 Years Ago
      I've used the LATCH system in 4 different cars, (Subaru, BMW, Toyota, Jeep) All of them were extremely easy and quick. I installed it the first time in the Subaru, and it was so easy that I thought I did it wrong. We has been warned that 80% of car seats are installed incorrectly. I got out the seat manual, and the car manual. I had it right, and it was so simple that I was flabberghasted that anyone with thumbs could possibly do it wrong. This makes me wonde how stupid people actually are.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Seriously! I've used various car seats in about a half dozen cars! The difficulty has ALWAYS been with the clips on the seats themselves ... not the latches on the cars. I mean they're just little hooks in the seats. On a cheaper car seat, the clip was a real pain ... but on a higher-end seat that we had, it was a breeze!
      Leather Bear
      • 3 Years Ago
      Although it won't help the vehicles already in service, all the IIHS has to do to solve this issue on future cars is to make "easy-to-use" LATCH hardware one of the criteria in order to receive a Top Pick rating. Car makers will scramble to redesign rather than risk losing the Top Pick rating.
      • 3 Years Ago
      never had an issue with it. Mazda3 hatch (2007 and 2010), as well as our 2012 Sorento. it is a dream next to using the old belt tensioners.
        • 3 Years Ago
        our Graco seats have had no problems in these 3 vehicles. We used to have the belt tensioners in our TL, it did not have LATCH, but was a nightmare. I have big hands and had problems feeding the seatbelt through the tunnel and keeping tension on the belt. how to use LATCH, clip one side into the lower anchor (it just clips in, shove it between the seats and let it find it's home), then do the same for the other side. put your knee in it and then take out the slack. my lower tether is only a few inches longer than needed so this is quick and easy. the upper anchor is on the back of the seat, feed tether through the hole between seat and head rest, tighten. now that i think about it though, we only use boosters now!
      • 3 Years Ago
      I have a Ford Flex and the LATCH system is easy as can be! It also does not take an excess of 40 LBS of force to connect either! My wife and I have used the 2nd and 3rd row LATCH's too. Did they pick a funky seat for the test?
        • 3 Years Ago
        Today I learned that when the informercial 'are you tired of...' actors aren't filming, they work for the IIHS. Latch system points obstructed by foam? Oh the humanity!
      • 3 Years Ago
      • 3 Years Ago
      Yet another reason NOT to procreate.
        • 3 Years Ago
        eaxctly. If you too stupid to install a car seat, we definitely don't need more of you.
      • 3 Years Ago
      My kids are 6 and 4 so I am well versed in the car seat dance. I am a big fan of LATCH. I hate those stupid belt tensioner things when using seat belts. I will say access to the latch points are easier in some cars than others. The way I do it is put the seat in and latch the connectors, then get in the seat and tighten them. Then move on to the anchor strap. When I am done, the seats are rock solid in their place. The only car I've ever had issues with is my MIL's Jetta and a Britax seat, which has a much more stout connector than other car seats. I have to turn twist the connector upside down to get it to latch because the car little plastic chutes that get in the way.
      • 3 Years Ago
      some car companies don't try too hard with their latch anchors and make them difficult to get to. they create the biggest problem! and, some seat makers make their attachment hooks easier to actuate than others. but for the most part I would say that the Latch system is Excellent! If the car companies would design their anchors as less of an afterthought no one could possibly complain about the system being too difficult. I think it works great.
      Jason Krumvieda
      • 3 Years Ago
      Funny that the Eclipse is on the list. Seems unlikely "family car" in comparison to the Flex and Sonata.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Many cars don't have it in the center position, which is by far the safest position for the car seat. That is one failing of the "system" But it was not apparently one of the IIHS criteria.
      • 3 Years Ago
      In my experience, LATCH systems aren't really any more easy to use than the old seatbelt system. After shopping for a new car, and lugging our car seat into and out of a dozen cars, some were definitely easier than others. Maybe our car seats are just wide, but often the anchors are actually under the car seat, not on either side. This can make it difficult to remove the car seat, because the belt adjustment (which is right at the clip) is left at a weird angle, making it hard to loosen. This also can make it difficult to tighten. As you tighten it, the adjustment mechanism starts moving at an angle as the seat itself presses against it, and sometimes, you just can't pull the belt through it anymore, even though the seat isn't as tight as it should be. The anchors were always buried between the cushions, and in some of the cars, the cushions were so hard or tight, you could barely move your hand once you wedged it in there.
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