Learned on vacation: How to properly install a kid's car seat

By Michael Yudell

Late last month my wife and I packed up the car with our two girls and dog and headed south for Grandparents-palooza. It’s our annual weeklong visit to South Florida, a land where the pastrami is neither too lean nor too fatty, drafts seem to be everywhere, and we get to leave the kids with the grandparents for a few nights of parents-of-young-kids' most precious commodity: uninterrupted sleep.

With all the shuffling around between two sets of grandparents' homes and cars, and watching my mom and father-in-law try to install car seats with some twine, Elmer’s Glue, a power drill, and lots of T.L.C., I realized just how difficult it is to properly install a child safety seat. And reading up on the topic, I discovered just how often it's not done properly, even when you think it is – and how dangerous that ignorance can be.

Problems installing car seats are not limited to my parents’ generation, a time before these things were commonplace. I like, many of you out there, went home from the hospital in my mother’s arms, not a special seat. Today, if you have a child young enough to ride in a car seat, the chances are that it – and/or your child – is not correctly restrained. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “3 out of 4 car seats are not used correctly.”

In an attempt to standardize car seat installation, almost every new car and car seat sold in the United States since 2002 has come equipped with the Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren system, better known as LATCH. (Use of the LATCH system is not mandatory nationwide, and many older cars still on the road do not have it. Car seats attached by seat belts are required by law in all 50 states, although a 2006 NHTSA report notes that “the traditional method of attaching child safety seats with seat belts was prone to misuse such as a loose fit or incorrect routing.”)

The most underutilized part of the LATCH system is the upper tether, the strap on the back of the car seat that buckles behind the car seat, either on the ledge behind the rear headrest area, or, in SUVs with fold-down seats, behind the seat itself. The 2006 report – if you're into details, you'll likely find them somewhere in its 117 pages – determined that the upper tether was used in only 55 percent of car seat installations. The use of an upper tether is important, the authors write, because it “reduces the forward motion of the safety seat in a crash; thereby, reducing the potential for injury-causing contacts with vehicle interior surfaces, as well as stress and injury to the vulnerable head/neck/spinal cord area of the body.”

To successfully use the LATCH system, the child safety seat is anchored to the car in three places — two lower anchors on either side of the seat and an upper tether that attaches behind the seat. That's easier said than done. The car seat may not be a good fit for the car, or the anchors and tether may be cumbersome to attach. If you need help installing (or buying or positioning your child in) a car seat, try watching one of several instructional videos prepared by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia's injury prevention team. You can also visit the American Academy of Pediatrics' “Healthy Children” website for more information about the proper use and installation of car seats.

Child safety seats reduce the risk of death in passenger cars by 71 percent for infants and 54 percent for toddlers, according to federal data. The failure to properly install (or even use) car seats can have tragic consequences. So make car travel safer for you and your little ones in 2013. If you have any questions about your car seat installation prowess, put away the power drill and visit your local car seat inspection station – you read that right, and Children's Hospital has compiled a list of 10 of them in Philadelphia and the suburbs – to have an expert double-check the installation, free. Taking care here may just save your kid's life.

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