Did you know that 3 out of 4 (75% of) child safety seats are not used correctly? Safety experts at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are helping parents to keep their child from becoming one of the thousands of children who are injured or killed each year because they are not properly secured in their child seat.
It is critical that parents choose an appropriate seat for their child and secure it correctly.
Parents should ask themselves two critical questions:
(1) What seat is most appropriate for my child?
(2) How do I install the seat and secure my child safely?
I wrote previously about the first question: What car seat or safety seat is most appropriate for my child? If you have not yet read that article, please take a few minutes to educate yourself about the different types of child safety seats.
Once you have chosen an appropriate car seat for your child, the next task is to install it correctly.
How To Install A Child Seat And Secure Your Child
It is critical that every parent learn how to properly install their child’s car seat. Each year, thousands of children are injured or killed in vehicle collisions because their seats were not properly secured. Common installation problems include:
- Parents are confused about how to correctly install their child’s seat
- Parents do not realize that not all vehicles and child seats are created equally and not every child seat fits correctly in every vehicle
- Parents do not realize their vehicle is equipped with a LATCH system or don’t understand how to use LATCH
Car seat manufacturers do a poor job of educating and training parents to properly secure their child’s seat inside their vehicle. Parents should have their car seat initially installed and/or inspected at a child safety seat inspection station.
The LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) system has made installing child safety seats easier and safer. LATCH is required on all child safety seats and most vehicles manufactured after September 1, 2002. LATCH-equipped child seats fasten directly to the seat using lower anchors and a tether anchor. The lower anchor straps are attached to the rear of the child safety seat. An upper tether strap is located at the top rear of convertible seats, forward-facing seat and combination seats. Most rear-facing infant seats do not have a top tether strap or hook and do not generally use a tether during installation.
There are two styles of LATCH connectors: the “hook”-style connector and the “push-on”-style connector. According to Consumer Reports, the “push-on” LATCH connectors are easier to use, particularly in vehicles in which the LATCH connectors are recessed or hard to reach. “Push-on” connectors are often much easier to detach than “hooks” because they “push-on” connectors do not require a twist.
Where To Place The Child Seat
The rear seat is universally considered the safest place for children of any age to ride. If possible, your child should be placed in the rear center seat location. The rear center seat location places your child the further from all possible collision sites as your child is placed further from the front, the rear and the two sides. However, many vehicle manufacturers do not provide rear center LATCH anchors. In such situations, parents have these options:
- Position the child seat on either the driver’s or passenger’s side of the vehicle rather than the center of the seat.
- Position the child seat in the rear center seat using the seat belt for restraint rather than the LATCH anchor system.
- Some auto makers allow the inboard LATCH anchors from the side seating positions to be used to create a center LATCH seating position. However, parents must check with the child seat manufacturer before doing so. Spacing between the inboard LATCH anchors may be too great in some vehicles to ensure that the child safety seat will be stable and parents must review the vehicle owner’s manual and child safety seat instructions to determine whether a rear seat LATCH position can be created.
How To Install A Safety Seat Using The LATCH System
NHTSA has provided a basic guide for installing LATCH-based child safety seats.
1. ALWAYS read and follow the vehicle owner’s manual and child safety seat manufacturer’s instructions for correct installation and proper use.
2. Fasten the child safety seat’s lower attachments to the vehicle’s lower anchors. Tighten and adjust according to the instructions and check for a secure fit.
3. Attach the child safety seat’s top tether to the vehicle’s anchor and pull to tighten. The child safety seat should not move more than an inch forward or sideways. NOTE: Tethers are not used on most rear-facing child safety seats.
Common LATCH system installation mistakes include:
- Failing to install the child safety seat tightly enough
- Routing the lower anchor strap through the wrong area of the child safety seat
- Installing the forward-facing seat, but without using the tether strap
- Using inboard lower LATCH anchors to install a child seat in the rear center position when the vehicle and/or child seat do not permit such installation
- Using lower LATCH anchors to install a child seat in booster mode where the child is sitting on the seat and using the vehicle’s seat belt across the child’s body
- Installing the child safety seat using lower LATCH anchor when the child weighs more than 48 pounds
Auto web site, Edmunds.com also provides some specific tips for child seat installation:
Rear-Facing, Infant-Only Seat – LATCH Install
Many parents of newborns like the type of infant car seat that comes with a separate base. The base remains installed in the car while the baby carrier itself can be taken out and snapped back in at will.
Infant seat bases usually have flexible LATCH connectors — essentially belts with hooks at the ends.
Locate the lower anchors in the second-row window seats. Make sure the car seat lays flat against the seat’s bottom and back, between the lower anchors.
Hook the LATCH attachment that is furthest away from you onto the anchor. Then, if possible, climb on top of the seat, putting your knee on top (see photo). Using your weight to fully compress the vehicle seat, hook the other attachment to the anchor and pull out the slack. If you can’t get on top of the seat, use all your strength to push down on the seat while hooking on the second attachment.
Don’t worry about a tether — it’s extremely rare for an infant car seat to require one.
Rear-Facing, Infant-Only Seat – Standard Should and Lap Belt Installation
What if your car or your car seat is an older model and doesn’t feature LATCH? Or what if your car’s seat cushions or anchor placements make LATCH installation impossible? You can still do a standard shoulder and lap belt installation that’s perfectly safe. First, thread the vehicle’s lap and shoulder belt through the correct slots, called the "belt path." If you have a convertible car seat that reverses from forward-facing to rear-facing, be careful to choose the correct path; it will be clearly marked.
Plug the latch plate (male end of the seatbelt) into the buckle (female end), then, using your weight as above, tighten the belt. Make sure all the slack is taken out of both the lap and the shoulder. Typically, using a locking clip will give you a more secure installation. A locking clip is an H-shaped piece of metal that comes with all new car seats or can be ordered from the manufacturer. To use one, plug the seatbelt in, make it as tight as possible, then unplug it again while holding the belt very tightly. Wind the locking clip around the belt as close as possible to the latch plate, then plug it back in. You may have to bounce down on the seat a few times to get it closed. This won’t be easy, but it will give you a rock-solid installation.
Remember that a rear-facing infant car seat should sit at a 45-degree angle to prevent the baby from slumping and to keep his or her airway open. Check your instructions to see if your seat has an angle adjuster; if so, use it. If not, a small piece of a swimming pool "noodle" wedged under the seat is the safest way to get the same angle. Why a noodle? Well, you can also use a tightly rolled towel, but towels compress over time, whereas the material in pool noodles does not. If you use a towel, check it occasionally to see that the angle has been maintained.
Forward-Facing Toddler Seat – LATCH Install
Use your body weight to compress the vehicle seat. With a rigid LATCH attachment, simply push the attachments onto the anchor. For a flexible one, hook the attachment over the anchor. In both cases, pull the straps as tight as you can.
Then comes the tether, which you’ll find at the top of the safety seat. The purpose of the tether, when properly anchored, is to prevent the car seat (and thus the baby’s head) from snapping forward. Different cars have different locations for the tether anchors. They can be behind or under the seat, along the rear window shelf and, in many SUVs and wagons, on the floor of the cargo bay or in the ceiling. You must check your vehicle owner’s manual to be sure. If your car was made prior to 1999, you may need to consult the car’s manufacturer or your local dealer to complete your installation. In a 1991 Honda Accord, an easy to install, $13 bolt available at the local dealer was all that was required.
Hook the tether to the anchor point, then pull tight on the belt to remove any slack. Make sure NOT to attach the tether to the sliding seat adjuster or to a cargo hook. Don’t attach more than one car seat tether to the same anchor point unless your vehicle manual says it’s OK.
Forward-Facing Toddler Seat – Should and Lap Belt Install
For a shoulder and lap belt installation, thread the vehicle’s lap and shoulder belt through the appropriate belt path.
Buckle the seatbelt. As before, use your body weight to compress the vehicle seat cushion. If the child seat has a "lock-off" clip — located on the side of the seat — be sure to refer to your instruction manual on how to use it. If it doesn’t have a lock-off clip, pull the shoulder belt slowly all the way out, then let it retract. If you hear clicking sounds, the seatbelt has an automatic locking retractor, and is locking itself. (Some retractors are very quiet, though — if the belt feels rigid after it retracts, the seatbelt is most likely locked.) Pull the belt as tight as possible.
If you can still pull out slack on the belt, you do not have seatbelts that lock automatically and you will need to use a locking clip to secure the seat, same as above. Bear in mind that emergency locking retractors are not the same as automatic ones and, despite their name, must still be locked down with a clip. To use a locking clip, unplug the seatbelt and hold it tight. Wind the locking clip around the belt as close as possible to the latch plate, then plug it back in.
What many people don’t understand is that the lap portion of the seatbelt is the part responsible for keeping the car seat secure. The shoulder belt portion must be "locked down" if the lap portion isn’t locked on its own, which is what usually happens. Dodge and Chrysler vehicles, however, have a special mechanism on the lap portion of their shoulder/lap belt that locks the lap belt securely, so that the shoulder belt portion becomes irrelevant.
It’s important to remember that, after a car seat is installed, the seatbelt’s latch plate should NOT lie against the curved opening of the car seat. If it does, try to make the buckle shorter, even if it means twisting it a full turn or two around. If that still doesn’t work, your car seat might not be the right choice for your car.
Your child is the most precious cargo in your vehicle. Choosing the proper car seat is an important decision and correctly installing the child safety seat is critical to protecting your child in a collision.
Brett Emison is currently a partner at Langdon & Emison, a firm dedicated to helping injured victims across the country from their primary office near Kansas City. Mainly focusing on catastrophic injury and death cases as well as complex mass tort and dangerous drug cases, Mr. Emison often deals with automotive defects, automobile crashes, railroad crossing accidents (train accidents), trucking accidents, dangerous and defective drugs, defective medical devices.