The Latch system — Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children — was introduced as a safe and easy way to install child-safety seats correctly. Turns out, however, using a seat belt to secure your child's safety seat is ultimately safer for older kids. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is revising its Latch anchor weight limit guidelines, and the new rules go into effect in February.
Prior to now, the government didn't specify a Latch system maximum weight limit that included both the weight of the seat and the weight of the child, and many vehicle and car seat owner's manuals aren't specific about the total weight limitations of the system. Recent crash tests, however, provided some alarming results.
During the testing of a 77-pound, 10-year-old test dummy in a 30 mph crash, NHTSA discovered that the Latch anchors became overloaded and did not work properly. As a result, the agency is instituting a 65-pound combined child and car seat weight limit.
The new rule means that child restraint manufacturers have to specify the maximum weight of a child for car seats installed with Latch via a label on each seat; the rule does not dictate that automakers increase the strength of Latch anchors. So what do parents need to do? Most importantly, you need to pay closer attention to the weight of both your seat and your child and know that exceeding this limit could overload the Latch system, and it might not properly restrain a child in a crash.
According to Safe Ride News, a publishing company focused on promoting child safety, a car seat typically weighs 13 to 33 pounds. The problem is, as health and safety agencies recommend kids stay in car seats longer, the seats themselves are growing in size and weight to accommodate older kids. For example, several new booster seats with harnesses can hold a child up to 70 pounds. Once you take the seat's weight into account (for example, the Britax Pioneer 70 weighs 21 pounds), the total load on the Latch system is now 91 pounds, much higher than the new safety standard.
In my family's case, I can still use Latch to install my 31-pound daughter's 13-pound forward-facing convertible because the total comes in at less than the combined 65-pound limit. When the combination is more than that, parents should use a seat belt to install the car seat, but NHTSA cautions that even after the weight limit has been reached, the top tether anchor should still be used. "A significant portion of the harm to children resulting from motor vehicle crashes could be prevented by the tether," the agency said in a statement.
The good news for parents is that after the mandate goes into effect, it'll be easier for us to figure out the weight limit. All car seats manufactured after Feb. 27, 2014, will have a label that clearly defines the weight of the car seat and the maximum weight limit for installing that car seat with lower anchors. "The purpose of the label is to reduce consumer confusion about using lower LATCH anchorages, and to ensure that forces generated by the child and [car seat] in most crash conditions do not exceed the lower anchors' design limits," NHTSA said in its ruling.
Setting a clear Latch anchor limit sounds like good news for parents, but some child safety seat experts fear this ruling will only further confuse them. "The vast majority of parents didn't realize there were limits to the Latch system, and I don't expect this to change with the new labeling," said Darren Qunell, a certified child safety seat installation technician from CarSeatBlog.com, a site that tests car seats and blogs about safety issues. Qunell also cautions that the car seat misuse rate is already high, and creating confusion for parents could cause it to go higher.