Parents, car manufacturers and car seat makers are all aiming to keep kids safer in vehicles. And while there have been important advances in the last few years, significant challenges remain. More than 1,000 children under age 12 die in vehicle crashes in the U.S. each year. More than 100,000 are injured.
One advance meant to better secure children has been in place since 2002: the Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) system for child car seats. And in March 2011, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) updated its car seat guidelines. It now recommends keeping young children in rear-facing seats longer, as well as keeping older children in the backseat longer.
But parents often struggle with the restraint systems meant to keep the young riders safer, whether that's an infant seat or a booster seat. And a number of groups are trying to do something about it.
Understanding the Problem
While proper use of child safety seats has improved, less than a third of forward-facing child seats had the recommended top tether in place, according to a recent survey by Safe Kids USA, an advocacy group.
Three out of four parents don't install child car seats correctly, according to an often-quoted NHTSA study. Booster seats for older kids can pose problems, too. The seatbelts used to secure them sometimes don't fit properly.
Throw in the variety of car seats available — more than 40 companies make child-restraint systems — and the seemingly endless configurations among vehicles, and it's easy to see how ensuring safety for young riders can be a complex, frustrating experience.
Regulators, carmakers and safety-seat manufacturers are increasingly aware of the problems, however, and say that they are at work on them. Here is a look at the major car seat issues, how they are being addressed and where parents can find help in dealing with them until they are resolved — or until some improvements are at least offered.
Using the "Safest" Position in the Vehicle
Parents hear conflicting information on where child seats should be placed, says Anne McCartt, Ph.D., senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
"Parents hear the center backseat is the safest," she says. ''They are also encouraged to use LATCH.'' However, most cars position the LATCH anchors on the "outboard" backseats, which are the ones closest to the windows, not in the center seat.
This is an instance of the ideal clashing with reality. Vehicles are required to have the lower anchors in a minimum of two seating positions, says Jose Ucles, a NHTSA spokesman. It's up to the car manufacturers to decide which two positions to use. And while the center backseat position is the safest, carmakers often opt for the outboard positions because it's easier for parents to secure seats and children there, he says.
Parents who want to use the center position will have to secure the seats with safety belts. According to NHTSA and IIHS, that's an acceptable option.
"While LATCH makes it easier to properly install car seats in vehicles, it's important for parents and caregivers to know that securing a child seat with a seatbelt is equally as safe — and they have the flexibility to use either system," NHTSA administrator David Strickland said in a statement to Edmunds.com.
NHTSA officials are researching LATCH use in the rear center seat, Strickland said. And some vehicles do have a dedicated LATCH system for the center backseats. For instance, the 2011 Toyota Sienna minivan has LATCH in the center back of the third row, says Brian Lyons, a Toyota spokesman. The 2011 Toyota Sequoia SUV has it in the second row center position.
Meanwhile, Ford Motor Company tells parents they may use the anchors from the two outboard seats that are closest to the center to secure a child safety seat in the back-center position — if certain requirements are met (see pages 218-223 in this owner's manual for the 2012 Ford Explorer). For example, the seat manufacturer's instructions have to permit use with the anchor spacing provided when using the outboard anchors. Ford experts have tested the center position in that way, says Wes Sherwood, a Ford spokesperson.
But that's not possible in all vehicles that have a middle backseat, Sherwood says. A seat can't be secured that way in the Mustang, for instance, he notes. NHTSA spokesman Ucles adds that NHTSA itself cannot sign off on this use suggested by Ford, since it's still being researched.
Choosing the Outside Seat
For parents, the decision about which car seat position to use is swayed by practicality. "It's easier to get a car seat in and in tight when it is in the outboard position," says Dan Edmunds, director of vehicle testing for Edmunds.com.
He's speaking not only as an automotive engineer but a parent of two who has installed and coped with his share of car seats and vehicle models. And in his opinion, the outboard seat also makes it easier to get children in and out of a vehicle, so it's the most common choice anyway.
That's no small consideration when you add up multiple trips and multiple children. In some cases, Edmunds says, the driver may need more legroom and the front seat may be pushed too far back for the center-back position to accommodate a child seat.
Focusing on getting the seat tightly installed is the most important thing, he says.
If LATCH makes installation easier and it's on an outside position, use it, he suggests. If you're transporting two children, separating them by the center space may have an additional benefit, he says: less bickering en route.
Doing LATCH Right
While parents are free to bypass LATCH and use seatbelts to anchor a child seat, many choose to use LATCH. But they need to better understand its correct use, experts say.
While many parents know about the system's lower anchors, they often overlook the other half of LATCH — the top tethers, says Emilie B.K. Crown, program manager with Montgomery County Fire Rescue in Maryland and an expert in child passenger safety. "Usually once people find the top tether, they use it correctly," she says.
Other LATCH mistakes are common, according to a self-help site, The Car Seat Lady. Among them are using the wrong belt path for the lower anchor strap, using lower anchors to install a seat in booster mode (not usually permitted) and using the lower anchors when a child is over the weight limit recommended by the seat maker. Indeed, the rise in childhood obesity has prompted experts to urge parents to check the weight limits of car safety seats.
To address such mistakes, manufacturers are getting better at providing instructions on seat installation, Crown says. Most car seat makers have online videos and Web site illustrations to help parents.
What would make installation even easier, she believes, is color coding, so parents can easily see what strap fits with what anchor. It's somewhat akin to home entertainment systems, where connectors and ports are often color-coded for easy matching.
What's needed for car seats and LATCH is an easier and more foolproof system to increase the number of proper installations, says Chris Theodore, a former engineer and top-level executive in the auto industry and now a technical advisor for Lap Belt Cinch, a company that makes safety devices.
Take the example of the center backseat that often lacks LATCH. Carmakers, Theodore says, "might take another look" and install a third LATCH system there.
The IIHS also is looking at the usability of LATCH across many different types of vehicles, McCartt says. It hopes to publish results soon and to evaluate or rate LATCH systems in different cars to guide parents.
NHTSA is working on a voluntary program that would help give parents some information on the best matches between seats and vehicles. At least one carmaker — Nissan — already offers an online guide that shows parents which seats fit with which of its car models.
Improving Booster Seat Safety
Booster seats for older children also can be problematic. The seats are meant to lift children so that the safety belts designed for adults fit them better.
The boosters on the market today are better than they used to be at fitting the lap and shoulder belts on kids, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Still, it can be difficult to pick the right booster to achieve the right belt fit in a specific vehicle.
The government doesn't include belt fit in the regulation for booster seats, McCartt says.
The makers of booster seats crash-test the devices, and the government does dynamic tests of crash performance, McCartt says. But what is crucial is the belt's fit. For that reason, IIHS is conducting tests for belt fit on boosters, she says.
Using a special device, the IIHS researchers are testing booster seats, using a dummy that represents a 6-year-old child. For a good booster fit, the lap belt should lie flat and on top of the thighs, not higher up on the abdomen.
The shoulder belt should fit across the middle of the youngster's shoulder. The Institute posts illustrations of good fit and poor fit on its site.
The Institute also offers ratings of car seats. In IIHS's 2011 rating of 62 booster seats, 31 earned "best bet" ratings and another five were "good bets." Six boosters were "not recommended," because they did not provide proper belt fit. IIHS advised consumers to avoid them. The biggest group of boosters — 41 of them — fell into the "check fit" category. IIHS said those seats are a good fit for some children in some vehicles, but not as many as the "good bet" or "best bet" seats.
Booster Seat Options?
Another option that's on the market is SeatSnug. The palm-size device, made by Lap Belt Cinch, Inc., clips onto an existing seatbelt. It helps tighten the lap belt by pulling the shoulder strap until it rests snugly, according to company information. It sells for about $30.
''Kids move around," says Theodore, who advises the company. "When kids move around, the lap belt moves around."
Some car manufacturers offer built-in boosters. For instance, Volvo's XC60 SUV and XC70 wagon offer "dual-stage" integrated boosters. One position fits children 45-55 inches and the other fits kids 37-47 inches, says Volvo spokesperson Laura DiStefano.
Another more limited solution is a set of inflatable seatbelts for the rear seats. The inflatable belts debuted as an option on the 2011 Ford Explorer. "These inflatable seatbelts were definitely designed with kids in mind," says Ford spokesman Wes Sherwood.
Ford expects to offer them on other models soon. On the Explorer, they cost about $200, Sherwood says.
The belts combine characteristics of traditional belts and airbags. The system aims to reduce head, neck and chest injuries, he adds.
The Bottom Line
Government officials say they can't comment on any of the new add-on devices, as they haven't been tested by NHTSA. Some experts warn that no device should be used unless the car seat maker approves of it.
No matter what seat or system a parent uses, what's crucial is proper installation and use. NHTSA urges parents to read the owner's manuals for their seat and their car, and to find a local fitting station to be sure they've done everything correctly. This can be done by visiting NHTSA's Web site.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.