LATCH Retrofit Kits that Endanger Kids’ Lives
I’m a big fan of Amazon and Walmart when you can’t buy from your local small business owner: they provide items at good prices (often on sale) and ship to your front door fast. This is great because you can sit behind your keyboard or phone and not have to interact with anyone (awesome for us introverts!). However, what you miss out on is someone telling you how dangerous a product is because Amazon and Walmart don’t care that they’re dangerous—they want a sale.
I know, every time you turn around, there’s a Child Passenger Safety Technician ready to burst your happy carseat bubble. Yep, here I am this time too. I see questions about non-approved aftermarket add-on LATCH retrofit kits online a few times a week. I bought one and an add-on LATCH strap to prove to you how dangerous these items are. I’m guessing you might want to buy an add-on LATCH retrofit kit because you want to add a LATCH location to a seating position that doesn’t have LATCH anchors.
We’ve covered dangerous illegal Chinese “carseats” in the past. You can still find them for sale; I’m not going to link them. Once again, you can buy dangerous “safety” items on both sites, and probably others, and it’s up to you, the consumer, to determine if these items are worth your child’s life to use. Often common sense goes right out the window when faced with something that looks like it might make life simpler.
First, let’s talk about LATCH because I believe it’s drilled into parents and caregivers from pregnancy on, in magazine articles, by friends, and other prenatal sources, that it’s necessary to use in order to achieve a safe carseat installation. That is not always true. LATCH, or Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children, is an alternative method for installation. It was implemented in the early 2000s for ease of use and the goal was for it to be uniform across vehicles for carseat installation. It was felt that seat belt installations were difficult, and perhaps that was true. At the time, locking clips were necessary in many vehicles and very few carseats had built-in lockoffs.
Through the years, LATCH has morphed into a “must use” for new parents, though there never has been a standard for vehicle cushion placement around the lower anchors (have you ever had to search for them in seat bights (cracks) as you’ve moved carseats?) and top tether use remains pathetically low in the U.S. (please, for the love of all things chocolate, when installing your carseat forward-facing, attach the top tether!). Weight limits set by both vehicle and carseat manufacturers constrain LATCH; it is not the panacea originators created it to be.
Every seating position has a seat belt, unless it is damaged. Seat belts have no weight limits that any child or carseat can reach. I’m not advocating that they’re always better or easier to use—just that sometimes LATCH is hyped to the point where seat belts aren’t even considered. The seat belt is always available to use for carseat installations. Your carseat is designed to be installed with a seat belt and several are, in fact, designed to be better installed specifically with a seat belt. Huh. Go figure!
Everything Is Regulated . . . For A Reason
Lower LATCH anchors are welded or otherwise attached very specifically to the vehicle or vehicle seat frame (feel free to read this document sometime just before bed if you have insomnia; it’s long, boring, and technical—perfect to put you to sleep!). That seat frame is bolted to the vehicle frame. The lower anchors must withstand a pull test to 11,000 N. The add-on LATCH retrofit kit you purchase online does not. It is held to the vehicle seat only by the carseat’s lower LATCH connectors in the front and the top tether in the back, if the child is forward-facing and you attach the top tether. If the child is rear-facing, only the lower LATCH connectors are attached. Think about that pulling through in a crash. And, as with all good child safety devices, the kit comes with no instructions on installation or use.
(As a quick aside, looking at the anchors of the Accord above, you could theorize why vehicle manufacturers don’t allow LATCH borrowing when installing a carseat in the center seating position. These anchors are attached to the vehicle very differently!)
FMVSS 225, the safety standard governing vehicle LATCH, also regulates the length, width, and diameter of lower anchor bars to maintain consistency across vehicles so that manufacturers of carseats know their hardware will attach and detach from the vehicle. The non-approved add-on LATCH kits are flat sheet metal cut and bent into shape. Legitimate LATCH strap manufacturers design the connectors to attach to round anchor bars, as specified in FMVSS 225. Sure, the connectors may attach to the LATCH kit bars, but will you be able to get them off? As a parent, you want to know you’ll be able to uninstall your carseat without potentially having to cut it out because the lower connectors won’t release. And what if your carseat has rigid LATCH and can’t be cut out?
When I tried to install my aftermarket LATCH kit in the 3rd row of my Acura MDX, I had a moment of panic then anger when I couldn’t remove it. First, it didn’t fit correctly in the seat bight; the anchors sat far below the crack, unable to be accessed or moved to a location where they could be used. Second, once I got the kit in, it took me several minutes and swear words to get it out due to the design of my car. If I hadn’t been able to get the kit out, it would have meant metal spikes sticking up in my cargo area because I usually keep that seat folded down for hauling things around.
Vehicle Seat Structure
Do a Google search of diagrams of vehicle seats, you can see that there’s not much structure to them and each vehicle seat is designed differently. Unless you remove your upholstery and padding, you have no idea where the structural metal is to hold a device like the add-on LATCH retrofit. It may easily pull through during a crash, leaving your child’s carseat very loose and your child able to hit an interior surface of the vehicle, like the front seat, door pillar, or roof. Did you know crash investigators talk about scuff marks? They do and they’re not talking about shoes.
A very basic way to think of crash forces is weight x speed = restraining force. If a 20 lbs. rear-facing child is in a 23 lbs. Graco 4Ever, the add-on LATCH retrofit kit will need to be able to hold 460 lbs. of force without the tether anchoring it around the seat back. Will it? I seriously doubt it. What about a 40 lbs. forward-facing child in the same 4Ever? Let’s see: 40 lbs. x 23 lbs. = 920 lbs. of restraining force with hopefully the tether helping to hold it. Now will it stay in a crash and protect the child?
- It’s not anchored to the vehicle seat.
- There will be belt stretch, both lower LATCH connector belt and top tether belt stretch, and harness stretch; this is expected and designed to help mitigate crash forces.
- The harness will be loose: this is probably the #1 most common error we see as techs. Before your child can benefit from the energy management of ride down, they must first come to a stop against the harness. You don’t want space between your child and their harness for that reason.
- Will you remember to stop using LATCH at the weight limit? That’s another common error we see as techs.
This is all assuming a frontal crash, which is the most common type of crash. Physics says that crash forces will pull the LATCH retrofit kit forward, toward the point of impact. The same holds for a side impact. The problem here is that since the LATCH retrofit kit isn’t attached to the vehicle per FMVSS regulations, it will slide through the vehicle seat bight until it hits a stopping point. This may be several inches. Remember how we want your child’s seat to be installed with less than 1” of movement? Now it has several inches as it slides across the vehicle seat, twisting toward the point of impact. The more movement it has during the crash, the more movement the child has in the seat and the seat will strike the vehicle interior. If the carseat comes loose because the LATCH kit slides through the vehicle seat bight, it is now a massive projectile. Don’t underestimate crash forces.
Let’s go over this again. Five reasons why non-approved LATCH retrofit kits are a bad idea:
- There are no safety standards regulating how they must be designed.
- There are no safety standards regulating how they must be installed.
- There are no safety standards regulating how they must be used.
- It may move (a lot) during a crash because the LATCH kit isn’t anchored to the vehicle seat.
- User error is highly likely because it may not ship with installation or user instructions.
Non-Approved Add-On LATCH Straps
While the add-on LATCH kits seem to be the “new” kids on the block in terms of internet crazes, the add-on LATCH straps have been around since LATCH originated. Carseat manufacturers sold LATCH straps for their own carseats that weren’t manufactured with them. Fortunately, that time was short-lived because there was a lot of misuse with those LATCH straps as you can imagine—using one manufacturer’s LATCH strap on another manufacturer’s carseat, at the very least.
I purchased an add-on LATCH strap to satisfy my curiosity about the quality of these products. The strap I chose was at random, though I was intrigued by the indicator on the adjuster that tells the parent/caregiver when the strap is “on” (on what, I’m not sure because the indicator never changed to off, even when “off” any LATCH anchor). The listing also made the dubious claim of having a “safer” buckle than a metal buckle. First, this is an adjuster, not a buckle, and yes, that is an important distinction to make. Second, I have never seen any claims, studies, heard telephone stories, or otherwise that one is safer than the other.
The connectors themselves felt lightweight and cheap. Anyone who has been hit in the leg with a LATCH connector when moving carseats around knows they have weight to them. I doubt you’d notice these hitting you unless someone was really swinging them.
The Amazon listing is rife with misspellings and language clearly run through a translator. It’s fine if you want to buy a product from China (I have no qualms depending on the product—many fine high-end and not-so-high-end U.S. carseat manufacturers produce their seats there), but the issue again is that this is an unregulated safety product for your child. Ease of installation is not worth potentially having a strap that secures a carseat snap or come off the anchor during a crash and harm your child. I’ve been around a very long time in this field and am not naïve enough to know that parents only use LATCH for ease of installation, but generally solutions exist for every problem and cheap Chinese fixes would be my last choice.
Children’s products are regulated by strict federal standards for a reason: children are our future and since they are unable to make choices for themselves, they depend on us to make proper decisions for them. As adults we look for guidance from our parents and mentors, our friends, websites like CarseatBlog, and increasingly social media as we raise our children. We need to use a critical eye when evaluating these child safety products and realize that someone in an online parenting group presenting items like these as “fixes” is only giving their opinion, not their expertise regarding safety products. When in doubt, always consult a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician.