LATCH stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren.  It’s the next generation of child safety.

It’s a pair of metal anchors located in the seat bight, plus a top tether anchor located somewhere behind the vehicle seat.  Combined, these anchors were to make installation of carseats much easier than using seatbelts.  With me so far?

Problem is, at least in the USA, we made a lot of concessions to automobile and child restraint manufacturers when the system was implemented.  For example, the anchors are often hard to find or access.  Also, rigid LATCH isn’t required, as it is with ISOFIX in Europe.  Center and third row seating positions may not have anchors at all.  High weight limit seats are not considered.  This last issue has become a big problem, due to the rapid proliferation in carseats with 5-point harnesses now rated above 40 pounds in the USA and *Canada.

The rules, many of which are unwritten for the typical parent, are so absolutely crazy that certified child passenger safety technicians need a 200-page reference manual to help understand it.  The average parent or caregiver? They don’t even know about the rules or manual in the first place!  Thus, misuse happens.  It’s no wonder that parents who do know about it are so confused, they simply choose not to deal with it.

Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up:  In 2014, new federal standards, subject to petitions of the final rule, will require carseats to have another label.  This label will limit the use of lower anchors to a maximum weight for a child.  This child’s weight limit printed on each carseat, plus the weight of the carseat, must be 65 pounds combined, or less.  Thus, for any child seat that weighs over 25 pounds, it cannot be used with the lower anchors once the child is above 40 pounds (or less).  Clear as mud?

Adding to the confusion, these new federal requirements do not directly affect top tether anchors, the other component of LATCH.  Nonetheless, many automobile manufacturers are still currently limiting top tether anchor use to the same combined 65-pound [child plus carseat] weight, even when a seatbelt is used for installation.  A few still limit use to a 40- or 48-pound child weight.  That means that if you own any of these automobile makes (and you may need that 200-page manual to know which ones!), you should no longer use the top tether above this limit.  Still following me?

Of course, it is the tall and heavy kids that need top tethers the most in order to reduce head excursion, the source of severe head injury risk!  So, this is a major conflict in what we know about crash dynamics and something that could put older kids at risk.  All this leads to the following questions:

Q: Weight limits, really?  Is LATCH so unsafe that it has such low weight limits?  Is it even safe near the limits?

A: Fair points.  I’ve seen no data indicating that overloaded anchors are resulting in severe injuries.  If they do become unsafe at some weight, it’s not clear what weight that is or if the known benefits outweigh unknown risks.  Low limits may indeed cause parents to question the integrity of the system. Lacking any public data, these limits may seem arbitrary.  Regardless, parents should follow the ratings on the labels of their carseat and in their owners manuals, if any.  This often leads to confusion when published limits can’t be found or if they conflict with each other.  Unfortunately, CarseatBlog is placed in a position where this is the best answer we can give to parents.

For certified technicians, if both manuals are not in agreement for a higher weight limit, or when no guidance is provided, the standardized training curriculum says you should advise parents to discontinue use of lower anchors and/or tether use for a child heavier than 40 pounds. (R10/10. Ch. 6, Page 82)

 

Q: If I keep my kid rear-facing to 2 years and beyond, is it even worthwhile to use LATCH forward-facing for the limited time they will remain under the LATCH weight limit?

A: Probably not.  If you transition a child to a forward-facing seat after 2-years of age as recommended, a seatbelt installation is probably the best choice now, unless you cannot get a secure fitment for some reason.  The lower anchors are a suitable backup method for forward-facing seats used below the anchor limits.  Unless, of course, you’re installing in a center seating position, where you need that 200-page manual to know if you can even use lower anchors there!

 

Q: I know I can use a seatbelt instead of lower anchors, but I’ve been told top tethers are a vital safety feature.  Are top tethers no longer safe, either?  If not, what is the alternative?

A: There is no conventional alternative to a top-tether for use with a 5-point internal harness.  Personally, I would not want my own 7-year-old son, who is nearly 60 pounds, to ride in a 5-point harness without a top tether.  Unfortunately, as a certified technician, I cannot advise other parents to use a top tether beyond any published or default weight limits.  There are always exceptions, but it appears we are being forced to recommend that most children above 4-years and 40 pounds, who cannot use a forward-facing internal 5-point harness along with the top tether for any reason, probably should be transitioned to belt-positioning boosters using a 3-point lap/shoulder belt.

Low top-tether limits effectively contradict the AAP guidelines for toddlers and preschoolers that recommends, “All children 2 years or older, or those younger than 2 years who have outgrown the rear-facing weight or height limit for their car seat, should use a Forward-Facing Car Seat with a harness for as long as possible, up to the highest weight or height allowed their car seat’s manufacturer.”  That’s a big rock and a very hard place that parents and technicians have been put between!

 

Q: What good will LATCH be, anyway?

A: Lower anchors remain a good option for most infant and rear-facing seats.  They are also popular for securing some belt-positioning boosters into vehicles, since boosters do not have the same LATCH weight limits as 5-point harnesses.  That is because it is the seatbelt that restrains the booster child directly, rather than the internal harness.

 

Q:  Aren’t all the companies who invested a lot of R&D into rigid LATCH and other cool LATCH systems going to be burned by this?  If LATCH is not very useful for forward-facing seats with a harness, why require LATCH at all?

A: Good questions!   I suspect there won’t be much LATCH innovation in the future, with the possible exception of rear-facing only seats.  And, yes, it would be simpler for everyone if LATCH was required just on rear-facing only seats, given the 2014 labeling.  This would also save cost and weight on forward-facing seats, where LATCH will now have limited benefit.  It would be simplest for parents to to know that LATCH could be used to the maximum weight rating of any carseat.  Actually, parents wouldn’t even have to know this, because it would be common sense.

 

This was the promise of LATCH a decade ago:

Today, we have insanity.  The system implemented over a decade ago in order to make carseat installations much easier has actually become far more complex than using a seatbelt.  The lack of cooperation and action among manufacturers, regulators and major organizations has left us with such a mess that it’s not even clear why we really need LATCH at all.  Personally, I was a big supporter of LATCH when it was introduced over a decade ago, after my first child was born.  Hopefully, it can live up to its promise in another decade.  For now, perhaps the best guidance on the topic is this:  Use a seatbelt!

Did you know?  If you own a select Chrylser vehicle or other vehicles with a 65-pound combined limit, you must discontinue rear-facing use of LATCH around 32 pounds for the Graco Smart Seat or about 29 pounds for the Clek Foonf.   By 2014, that means many kids will never be able to use the great rigid LATCH system on the Foonf, because they will be above the mandated weight limit once they turn forward facing after 2-years old.  :-(

*Please note that top tether use is required in Canada, as they have different requirements than in the USA.