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Can’t Install a Car Seat? Blame the Car

As many as four out of five car seats aren’t installed properly, but a new study indicates that sleep-deprived new parents may not be entirely to blame. The problem could be the car design.

Only 21 of the top-selling 98 cars tested in a recent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study have rear-seat designs that make for easy installation. Federal regulations require cars of model year 2003 and later to use a system of lower attachments and top tethers called LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children), says Russ Rader, a spokesman for the IIHS. But safety belt buckles often block LATCH hardware, and other seat designs impede access. “Some vehicles had anchors that were buried so deeply, they were impossible to see and difficult to locate without sticking your fingers deep down into the seat,” he says. One parent volunteer even mistakenly clipped the child restraint to a flap of seat leather, thinking he’d found the anchor hardware, says Rader.

The tests found that parents were 19 times more likely to successfully install seats in vehicles with anchors that were easy to see, easy to reach, and required a minimum of force to attach. Connecting all the right hardware, and securely, can mean children are better protected in an accident, says Rader. (See list below for the vehicles that met all three criteria.)

Of the models tested, seven didn’t meet any of the three easy-installation criteria: the Buick Enclave CX, Chevrolet Impala LT, Dodge Avenger Express, Ford Flex SEL, Ford Taurus Limited, Hyundai Sonata Limited and Toyota Sienna XLE. That’s not to say parents didn’t manage, says Rader, but success rates were low. “Only 13% got them installed with correct use of hardware,” he says. In a statement, Chrysler — whose brands include Dodge — said all its vehicles “meet or exceed all applicable federal safety standards.” A GM spokeswoman says the company, whose brands include Buick and Chevrolet, hasn’t seen the study data yet to address specifics. “We totally agree that access to lower anchors, and easy installation, are important factors,” she says. Ford, Hyundai and Toyota did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

But the study didn’t let parents off the hook, either — about half of the time, they’re not using top tethers to secure a forward-facing seat, Rader says. And when they do use the tethers, they’re attached incorrectly about half of the time. “It’s really important to use that top tether because it helps keep the seat secure, even if you make some other errors in installation,” he says. Without the tether, an accident can pitch the child seat forward, “putting a child’s head at risk,” he says.

It’s a smart idea for parents looking for a new vehicle to bring their child’s safety seat with them to the dealership, says Jack Nerad, editorial director for Kelley Blue Book. That helps test ease of installation, he says. Manufacturers may also differ in the number and location of seats that have LATCH anchors, which could affect a family’s buying decision. Parents will also find that it helps to have a new car seat that meets LATCH requirements and has the latest safety advances, instead of a hand-me-down. “Getting a new seat is a valuable investment,” he says. “They’re not necessarily cheap, but think of the alternative.” Read the seat’s instructions, as well as the vehicle owners’ manual for tips on installation.

The crucial last step: get the seat installation checked. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration maintains a list of inspection stations. Children’s hospitals, police departments and other service groups also offer regular checkpoints for assistance, Nerad says, as do auto dealerships.

2011 models that meet all 3 easy-installation criteria

  • Audi A4 Quattro
  • Cadillac Escalade
  • Chevrolet Equinox LT
  • Chevrolet Silverado 1500 crew cab
  • Chevrolet Suburban LT
  • Chevrolet Tahoe LS
  • Chrysler Town & Country (2010)
  • Dodge Caliber Mainstreet
  • Dodge Grand Caravan Crew
  • Dodge Ram 1500 crew cab
  • Ford Escape XLT
  • Ford F-150 SuperCrew Cab
  • GMC Sierra 1500 crew cab SLE
  • Honda Pilot EX-L
  • Kia Sedona LX
  • Land Rover Range Rover Sport
  • Mercedes-Benz C300
  • Mercedes-Benz E350
  • Mitsubishi Eclipse coupe GS
  • Mitsubishi Lancer ES
  • Toyota Tacoma extended cab

2011 models that don’t meet any easy-installation criteria

  • Buick Enclave CX
  • Chevrolet Impala LT
  • Dodge Avenger Express
  • Ford Flex SEL
  • Ford Taurus Limited
  • Hyundai Sonata Limited
  • Toyota Sienna XLE

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