Parents who feel they have finally mastered the intricacies of LATCH, the Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children safety system for child car seats, can't rest easy just yet.
That's because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is revising its regulations about how to use the system.
LATCH, in effect since 2002, is meant to make it easier to install child car seats. Instead of using seatbelts to secure the seats, LATCH employs attachments that use the lower anchors and tethers found in vehicles and on child car seats.
Effective February 2014, parents should not use the lower anchors of LATCH if the combined weight of the child and the car seat is 65 pounds or more, according to NHTSA.
Once children and their seats are past the weight limit for the lower anchors, parents can secure the child seat using the safety-belt system. The revision to the rule only applies to the lower anchors. Use of the tether strap that is attached to the top anchor is not affected.
Generally, top tethers are used for forward-facing car seats and can be used either with LATCH or seatbelts, according to NHTSA. But the agency recommends first checking with the makers of the seat and the car to be sure.
The switch away from lower anchors at the combined 65-pound weight limit is a safety precaution, according to NHTSA. In discussions with the agency, vehicle manufacturer associations and some makers of child car seats supported the combined weight label so that consumers would know how heavy a child could be without potentially overloading the LATCH anchors.
Currently, the agency does not specify any child-plus-seat weight limit. Makers of child car seats list a maximum weight and height for children on their models, but currently do not take the weight of the car seat itself into account.
Some Safety Advocates Object
Not everyone is happy about this change to child car seat LATCH rules. In April 2012, five child-safety advocates representing different organizations petitioned NHTSA for a delay, asking to see evidence, including dynamic test information, supporting the assertion that 65 pounds is indeed the maximum safe weight for the anchors.
Signers include representatives of Safe Ride News Publications, Safety Belt Safe U.S.A., Traffic Safety Projects and Ben Hoffman, an Oregon Health & Science University pediatrician and child safety advocate.
While NHTSA considers the use of lower anchors and the seatbelt system equally safe for securing a child car seat, there is more to consider, says Deborah Davis Stewart, who is publisher of Safe Ride News Publications and one of the petition's signers.
"In general anchors are easier to use, and fit better [to secure the child car seat] than seatbelts," she says.
She wants to extend the amount of time that parents use LATCH anchors, not shorten it with the 65-pound weight limit. "I'd like it to go up to a 65-pound child," Stewart says.
Doing the Math for New Child Car Seat Rules
Child car seats vary in weight, according to a survey done by Safe Ride. Several seats weigh 25 pounds. Some weigh less, and others are up to 33 pounds, Stewart says. That could mean that under the new guidelines, the switch from LATCH to seatbelts to secure a car seat could take place when some children weigh as little as 32 pounds.
Complicating the issue is the fact that children have been getting heavier. Obesity in U.S. children has more than doubled in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
NHTSA will respond to the petition to reconsider the final rule, says Jose Alberto Ucles, an agency spokesperson. Beyond that, he says, NHTSA can offer no other information at this time.
"When we are in the middle of rulemaking, we cannot really comment," he says.
Responses From Carmakers and Seat Companies
Safe Ride surveyed vehicle manufacturers and finds most are on board with the new rule. Some are already communicating the information to customers, even before the rule goes into effect, Stewart says.
Laura Venezia, a spokesperson for Volvo, says her company is working with the Auto Alliance and ''will certainly meet any new federal requirements."
Most makers of child safety seats, meanwhile, have not opted to implement the new weight limit labeling early, according to Stewart.
The Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association (JPMA), which represents the makers of child car seats, also wants NHTSA to consider suspending the new LATCH weight requirement.
In a statement, the association says: "We believe that this requirement will have a negative impact on proper car seat use and cause more confusion among parents and caregivers on how to use car seats correctly."
According to the association, the new regulation will cause parents to trust LATCH less, will mean kids will graduate to booster seats too soon and will lead to increasing misuse of LATCH.
Up to 75 percent of child car seats already are improperly installed or used, according to JPMA.
Looking to the Future
Instead of imposing a combined weight limit, a better long-term solution would be to hold the lower anchors to higher performance standards, according to Emilie Crown, R.N., program manager of the Montgomery County (Maryland) Fire Rescue Car Seat Program, and other safety advocates.
In its petition to NHTSA, Safe Ride and others also pointed to the possibility of strengthening the anchors. However, safety advocates agree that this is a long-term project that would take time to design, approve and phase in.
Help for Harried Parents
As decisions about the pending rule play out, parents can get plenty of help online and in person to be sure their young passengers are riding safely.
Guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that infants and toddlers ride in rear-facing seats until they are 2 years old or until they are at the weight or height maximum allowed by the car-seat maker. At that point, children should ride in forward-facing car seats with a harness, still in the vehicle's backseat.
Children then graduate to booster seats until the vehicle's seatbelt fits properly without a booster. Going without a booster is typically when the child is 4 feet, 9 inches tall and about 8-12 years old, according to the academy. Children should continue to ride in the backseat until they are 13.
Much more information on child car seats is at the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The academy also has created a Car Seat Check app for iPhones and iPads ($1.99).