aWhen LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) was released about 10 years ago, the intention was to make installing car seats easier for parents. While it was a great intention, it backfired as car seats are still highly misused and installed incorrectly — a whopping 84%-90% (depending on who you ask).
But are the LATCH changes recently proposed by NHTSA the end of LATCH? No, not even the end as we know it.
NHTSA’s proposed changes in regard to using LATCH have been highly publicized amongst the car seat world and parents of car seat aged children. You have always had the option of installing the car seat using the seat belt. When LATCH was released a lot of parents thought it was safer; it’s not. Many thought it would be easier to use; statistics show, it’s not. Some people are now saying these new regulations, which are being implemented tomorrow (Feb. 27, 2014), are just making something already confusing even more so. That may be.
This “change” that has everyone talking is, again, not so much of a change but a re-education so to speak. The “change” is that there are weight limits in place for using the lower anchors of LATCH. The reality is many car manufacturers already had weight limitations in place for using LATCH. You just had to read the vehicle manual and the car seat manual to learn what the weight limitations were for your situation. Now — and this is the actual change — car seat manufacturers are required to label their 5-point harness child restraints to tell parents that it should not be installed with the LA part of LATCH (lower anchors) when the combined weight of the seat (listed on the new label) and weight of the child (the parent needs to track this) reaches 65 pounds. At that point the seat can still be used and installed using the vehicle’s seat belt — and the T of LATCH (the tether) if it is forward facing.
The concern is that the lower anchors of the LATCH system in your vehicle may not be strong enough to restrain a very heavy child in a very heavy car seat under severe crash loads.
One question I’ve seen a lot of people ask in comments of other articles is whether it wouldn’t be better then to use both the lower anchors of LATCH and a seat belt to install the child restraint. No. Let me repeat that, NO! (Of course there are always exceptions to the rule as there are a couple of restraints that allow it. Read the manual!) One, it was likely not tested that way so using both to install the car seat would be going outside of the manufacturers recommendations and would cancel the warranty. Two, there is such a thing as “too tight.” When the child restraint is held in the vehicle so tight it doesn’t move at all, it becomes a part of the vehicle then the crash force is transferred to the child, increasing the likelihood of injury. Not good. The child restraint is meant to have some give (less than 1″ movement at the belt path), the straps are meant to have some stretch and during a crash; this is what absorbs the crash energy, reducing the amount of energy the child is exposed to.
So what you really need to know as parents. If you are using a car seat manufactured prior to Feb. 27, 2014, you still have to read the child restraint manual and the vehicle manual (or look for the LATCH weight limits for your vehicle online here) for guidance about using the lower anchors of the LATCH system. If you are using a child restraint manufactured after Feb. 27 2014, car seat manufacturers will do the math for you and list the LATCH weight limits on a label on the restraint thus telling you when to switch to a seat belt installation.
At this point in time, this is not a concern for infant car seats as none are so heavy as to exceed the 65-pound weight limit. Many rear-facing convertible seats on the other hand will be affected. In some cases the rear-facing lower anchor weight limit could be as low as 25 or 30 pounds of child weight.
Car seats which don’t weigh more than 25 pounds and have child weight limit of 40 pounds will not have to be labeled as you can only use the seat up the 65 pound lower anchor LATCH limit anyway.
Note that this new labeling requirement doesn’t say anything about not being able to use the tether part of the LATCH system for higher weight. Use of the tether strap and tether anchors in most cases is still allowed and recommended. Again, you’ll need to verify higher weight use of the tether with the car seat manual and vehicle manual/manufacturer. For instance, the RideSafer Travel Vest has a dual tether for when children reach 65 pounds if the vest is being used with a lap-belt only. This dual tether hooks to the vest and two tether anchor points to distribute the weight.
The other change which most articles do not seem too concerned about is the use of a new 10-year crash test dummy, which weighs 78 pounds and is 51″ tall. Manufacturers who have 5-point harness child restraints that is rated over 65 pounds will be required to test the restraint with this new dummy. As the dummy is quite large, it won’t fit in most convertible seats and we’ll likely see manufacturers lowering the maximum weight limits of some convertibles. Some manufacturers have already begun lowering weight limits to their seats back down to 65 pounds.