LATCH: What’s All the Confusion About?
By September 2003 all vehicles (with a few exceptions) were required to be equipped with Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. (LATCH) The reason for this mandate was to make installing a child restraint easier for parents and care givers, thus reducing the chance of a child being killed or injured in a motor vehicle crash. Vehicle manufacturers are required to make the lower anchor points to certain specifications and are subject to a specified force to a certain period of time. Since September 2005, all vehicles have to meet a tougher pull test than the original regulations. (FMVSS 225) All child restraint manufactures must equip their seats with connectors for the lower anchors and top tether anchors. Rear facing top tethering capability or testing is not required.
The first thing a parent assumes is that LATCH is a safer way to install a car seat when compared to a seat belt installation. If a LATCH installation can be done correctly in contrast to an incorrect seat belt installation, then this is true. The fact is seat belts are designed to restrain about 6,000 lbs. of force. If you can get a correct install with a seat belt, then you can be sure it is safe. LATCH should be an easy installation, but there are many factors that may prohibit a correct installation or a desired installation.
In some vehicles, the anchor points are so far into the seat bite, it makes it a challenge to attach the connectors to the anchors. Sometimes you may think they are attached, but they are attached to excess seat fabric. There are vehicles with multiple anchor points. If you do not read the vehicle manual carefully, you may wind up attaching the connectors to the wrong anchor points. Furthermore, vehicle seat contour and placement of the anchors may not match up with the child restraint design. The center seating position is suggested as the safest place for a child, or any passenger for that matter. However, there are very few vehicles with center seating LATCH connectors. Therefore, a seat belt installation would be appropriate for this position.
Referring to the vehicle owner's manual is important because the top tether anchor points can be located in different places in different vehicles. As you can see in the photo below, there are various locations for top tether anchors. It is important to attach the top tether to the correct location. Cargo anchors are not intended for top tethers, unless specified in the vehicle owner's manual.
The LATCH Manual, which is being updated this year, is a clear indication on how confusing LATCH can be to a layman. The LATCH Manual was created to help certified Child Passenger Safety Technicians decipher where, what, how, who, etc. for each vehicle manufacturer and model. In addition, there are approximately forty one pages of statements from child restraint manufacturers regarding their dos and don'ts for their seats when it comes to LATCH. The LATCH Manual is a fabulous tool for techs.
NHTSA is always looking at updating regulations to improve on safety in order to keep kids and other passengers safe on our roadways. More news is on the horizon. Hopefully, there will be less confusion in the future. Meanwhile, always read the vehicle owner's manual and the child restraint instruction manual. If you have questions, the CR manufacturer or a local certified CPST are good sources to contact.