Thursday, January 10, 2013

Car Seat Safety Series: Part 4 LATCH vs. Seatbelt

This is the fourth in a series on car seat safety, written by Megan Arce, CPST (Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician) and mother to 2 little princesses. My daughter, Bethany, introduced us and I was thrilled when she agreed to write this series for me. So, for the next few weeks, make sure you check back in on Thursdays for more important information all parents, and grandparents and other caregivers, need to know to keep our precious little ones safe!

LATCH versus Seatbelt

Car seat installation is tricky. It is. It seems like it should be a basic concept, but there are a number of factors to consider, several manuals to read, and they require knowledge that the average parent does not even have access to. When I tell people I do car seat installations as a profession, I often get the following response: “Who’d pay for that? I just have to read the little book that comes with it, right?” Well, even if parents are reading the manuals, both for their vehicles and for the car seats, (and I say if because, let’s face it, most of us don’t read the manual/instructions for anything!) there is a 90% misuse rate for car seats. Yes, 90%. This means most car seats out there are either installed incorrectly or being used incorrectly, often both. Car seat technicians are very pleasantly surprised when we check a car and everything is perfect, but sadly, most techs have only come across that scenario a few times in their careers. So let me go back to my original statement: Car seat installation is tricky!
The first tricky culprit: the LATCH system. LATCH stands for “Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children”, which is a car seat installation system available in most vehicles manufactured after 2002.  LATCH was created as an easier alternative to seat belt installation, with hopes of decreasing the misuse rate.  What it has done, however, is created its own set of misuse and confusion, so much so that we techs have a whole book, updated yearly, dedicated to the LATCH system in every.single.vehicle on the market.  We don’t have books about seat belts! When considering LATCH installation, first verify the seating locations that allow for LATCH usage, and the weight limit for the LATCH system (mostly 40 pounds, but sometimes more). The weight limit varies per vehicle and per car seat, sometimes vehicle says to refer to child restraint, sometimes the opposite. As of now, we only need to factor in the weight of the child into this limit, but in the near future, just to make it even more confusing, the weight of the child restraint will have to be factored in too. Seat belts are intended to hold large adults under extreme forces.  So which method to choose when installing a car seat?  Whichever gives you the best, tightest, safest fit.  When used correctly, one is not any safer than the other, but both could give a completely different fit in the vehicle. Only one should be used, however; never both at the same time.  
The most common LATCH error is using LATCH in the center seating position in a vehicle that does not allow for LATCH in the center seating position, most of which do not (this information can hopefully be found in your vehicle owner’s manual). This happens to be my personal pet peeve (excuse my upcoming rant). Before my first child was born, I had my car seat checked by the Highway Patrol. I had the car seat base installed in the center position, borrowing one LATCH anchor from either outboard seat (since the center did not have it’s own designated LATCH anchors). The officer okay’d this install and I drove around for the first year of my child’s life this way, only to find out through my own research, that this was not allowed, was not safe, and that my child had been at risk from the day she came home from the hospital on. This is what prompted me to become a Child Passenger Safety Technician. Rant over. Well, almost. Not all Police Officers and Fire Fighters are CPSTs and you generally cannot just pop in and have them check your seat for you. I waited 6 weeks for my appointment with the one trained “professional” at the Highway Patrol, and he was wrong. Anyway, getting back to business…  Since the center of the vehicle is the farthest away from any point of impact in a collision (you can never take a direct hit sitting there), it is safest place to be, and generally the most desired by parents for their child’s car seat. And since many people falsely believe that LATCH is safer, they install in the center with LATCH, without knowing it is incorrect.
Another error is lack of use of the Top Tether anchors (the second part of the LATCH acronym). Top Tethers should be used whenever it is possible, with seat belt or LATCH installations. The top tether anchors help stabilize the seat and significantly reduce the amount of forward head excursion for a forward facing child in a frontal collision. This is so important for small children and could mean the difference between snapping of the spinal column (aka “internal decapitation,” or death).  
Check your vehicle manual for top tether locations in your particular vehicle. Some convertible car seats can also be tethered while in the rear-facing position as well.
The most common seat belt misuse is that they often are not in “pre-crash locked” mode, like they need to be, when used with car seats. The seat belt needs to have as much slack removed (vehicle seats need to be compressed in order to get the tightest possible fit) and it needs to be locked that way, either by the switching the retractor from Emergency Locking Retractor (ELR) to Automatic Locking Retractor (ALR) or by adding a locking clip (again, read your manuals for more details!). Your final installation should not allow for movement greater than 1” in any direction. If I have gone too far into “the talk” or if it sounds like I am speaking gibberish, bust out those owner’s manuals and get some clarification!
In case I haven’t said it enough, please READ YOUR OWNER’S MANUALS! Most of this information can be found in them. And if it cannot, or if you are unsure in any way, I beg you to please contact a car seat specialist in your area to help! 90% misuse rate… I’m so proud to be in the 10% and I want you to be too!

“When you know better, you do better!”


  1. Wow, I really need to get my car seats checked. I am always worried about them being installed correctly. We have 2 car seats in 2 different vehicles so I have 4 that need to be check out. Thanks for the info.

    1. You're welcome. I'm hoping this series saves some lives!

    2. I could potentially help you find a CPST in your area, Kristen, or at least point you in the right direction :)

  2. So, should I read the owner's manual? ;) Just kidding. Thank you for all the info! I should get my daughter's checked again just to make sure it's installed correctly.

    1. Yes, please read your owner's manual!! ;) Not the best read you'll ever have, but surely an important one


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