IIHS just released a new Ease-of-Use rating for parents to consider before buying a new vehicle: the LATCH ratings for location and use of hardware in vehicles. These ratings for 2015 vehicles—ranging from Good, Acceptable, Marginal, and Poor—measure ease-of-use only and are not considered safety ratings. In their search for ideal access to LATCH, the IIHS researchers only found 3 out of 100 vehicles made their cut for a top rating! The 2015 BMW X5, Mercedes Benz GL-Class, and Volkswagen Passat win for being most LATCH-friendly. Most notably, the Toyota Sienna minivan, built specifically for families, fetched a Poor rating (see rating example pic below).
LATCH is a familiar term for parents and caregivers who must deal with child restraints. What is it? Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren consists of connectors on the carseat that attach to anchors in the vehicle and is an alternative to using the seat belt for installing the carseat. Most carseats have a strap with connectors that either clip or snap onto the connectors, which are found in the vehicle’s seat bight (fancy term for “crack”). The top tether strap is found on convertible and combination carseats. These are carseats that can face forward and the tether secures the top of the carseat to the vehicle; it greatly reduces head excursion, or how far forward your child’s head comes out of the carseat in a crash. Note: the tether is generally only used when the carseat is forward-facing although there are some exceptions. Tethers are awesome for forward-facing kids, and should always be used regardless of whether the carseat is installed with lower anchors or the seat belt!
LATCH has been around for a long time: lower anchors were required hardware in vehicles since 2002. Top tethers have been required in vehicles since 2000. Some earlier vehicles have anchors in them because the manufacturers were that good. When it’s available and parents know what it is, LATCH makes installation easier and parents usually get it right. There’s still room for error, but it’s basically click, click pull tight. However, parents have to be able to find the lower anchors and top tethers and be able to easily attach the connectors before they can tighten the straps. If the lower anchors are positioned too deeply in the bight or at an angle where they’re hard to access with certain styles of connectors, this easy system becomes difficult quickly. It’s important to note that LATCH isn’t considered safer than the vehicle seat belt for installation.
IIHS researchers used tools to measure the depth of the anchors in the vehicle seat bight and the clearance angle. They also measured how far in from the edge of the bight they are found. Top tether anchors were rated on their locations as well. The goal is to have LATCH anchors that are easy to find right away because they’re clearly labeled and easily accessed. Vehicles receive a Good rating if they have the following:
- The lower anchors are no more than 3/4 inch deep in the seat bight.
- The lower anchors are easy to maneuver around. This is defined as having a clearance angle greater than 54 degrees.
- The force required to attach a standardized tool to the lower anchors is less than 40 pounds. (The tool represents a lower connector of a child seat, though the actual force required when installing a seat varies depending on the specific connector.)
- Tether anchors are on the vehicle’s rear deck or on the top 85 percent of the seatback. They shouldn’t be at the very bottom of the seatback, under the seat, on the ceiling or on the floor.
- The area where the tether anchor is found doesn’t have any other hardware that could be confused for the tether anchor. If other hardware is present, then the tether anchor must have a clear label located within 3 inches of it.
Because these are ease-of-use ratings, the IIHS LATCH ratings are NOT safety ratings and do NOT mean you should stop using LATCH for carseat installation. Your back seat may be differently designed than the 2015 models that they tested and as long as you can get the connectors on the anchors, you’re golden. It’s the battle to get them on that IIHS is measuring, not if they stay there. One thing you do need to remember is that there are weight limits for lower LATCH achors that vary from carseat to carseat.
What Can You Do As A Consumer?
Be *that* customer. Be informed. Ask to read the vehicle owner’s manual—make the salesperson work for their commission. The owner’s manual will tell you exactly how many LATCH locations there are and where the tethers are located (look under Child Restraints or LATCH). It will also give you any special directions for using the top tether. A Marginal or Poor LATCH rating shouldn’t preclude you from purchasing a vehicle because you can always use the seat belt to install a carseat. Sometimes knowing a trick or two, like folding the vehicle seat forward a tad to access the lower anchors, can make things easier. It just shows that you have to take more than leather seats and cup holders into consideration when choosing a new vehicle for your family.