In 2012, Jennifer Geiger and I installed child-safety seats into 83 cars as part of our Car Seat Check series. This year, we're already at 53 installs, and there are plenty of days left in 2013.
Jennifer and I are both certified child safety seat technicians. We underwent 40 hours of training and participate in car seat checks events sponsored by the police in the Chicago area — when time allows. For Cars.com's Car Seat Checks, we install the seats into test cars at Cars.com's Chicago headquarters.
We start the Car Seat Check by investigating the car's Latch system, which is supposed to make it easier to correctly install car seats, to see if it is actually easy to use. Next, we test how each car handles the various sizes of child-safety seats.
Latch stands for Lower Anchor and Tethers for Children. Few automakers set the lower anchors out in the open, so finding these small metal bars often involves digging between the back and bottom seat cushions, called the seat bight, to find them. Sometimes the cushions are difficult to move out of the way, or the anchors are buried deeply between the cushions or even nestled against them. All these scenarios increase the difficulty level when installing child-safety seats.
Cars manufactured after Sept. 1, 2002, are required by the federal government to have a Latch system, which usually consists of two sets of lower Latch anchors and three tether anchors. Some cars such as convertibles don't always have the tether anchors, and two-seat roadsters skip the whole system. When the Latch system proves to be too difficult to use, we install the car seat with the seat belt.
Before we begin installing car seats, we check to see if the head restraints are removable and if the rear seats have reclining seatbacks or slide back and forth. All these small factors can affect car-seat installation and fit. When possible, we remove head restraints if they're interfering with a car seat's fit; often they'll push the child-safety seat's back off of the car's seat cushion. We'll also recline the seatback to allow for better access to the Latch anchors as well as slide the seats as far back as possible for the most legroom.
Depending on the Latch system, car-seat installation can go quickly if the anchors are exposed, but if the anchors are buried deeply in seat cushions, it can be a difficult time with scraped knuckles and some swearing. Unfortunately, Jennifer and I often have raw knuckles to show for our time installing the seats.
Infant seat: We use a Graco SnugRide 30 in our Car Seat Checks and install it behind the front passenger seat. We like its hooklike Latch connectors; their skinniness makes it a little easier to connect to the Latch anchors. Out of our three car seats, this rear-facing seat is the space hog. We often have to move the front passenger seat forward — sometimes all the way forward — to fit it in the backseat.
Convertible seat: This Britax Roundabout can be used in the rear-facing position until a child reaches the maximum height and weight limit. Then it can be turned around to the forward-facing position. When rear-facing, this car seat takes up a lot of space. It has rigid Latch connectors that can easily click onto the Latch anchors, unless the seat cushions or seat belt buckles are in the way. Then they're difficult to work with. When there's a tether anchor in the third row, we'll install the convertible there.
Booster seat: We use a high-back Graco Turbo Booster for our checks. While backless boosters are easier to fit into most cars, we use this one to illuminate how backseat bolsters can affect a booster seat's fit, sometimes causing the seat to sit at an angle. Another important part of installing booster seats is seat belt buckles. We check to see if the buckles are on floppy bases, which can be difficult for younger children to use independently. This is especially important for kids riding in the third row, where it may be difficult for a parent to help them buckle up.
Car seats can be confusing, so start by reading your manuals. When you get a new car seat, make sure to read its manual as well as the section on car seats in your car's owner's manual. Next, register your car seat. This allows the car-seat maker to alert you when there's a recall. Finally, ask for help. If you're at all unsure whether you've installed your child's car seat correctly, stop by a car seat inspection station in your area.