Attention, parents of young children: You may be installing your child's car seat incorrectly.
But that's not your fault.
Carmakers are, in large part, ignoring standards that would make car seats easier to install, burying latches in between seats and making tethers hard to find, says a new report by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety. Many parents end up installing seats that are too loose and could jerk around in an accident, putting children at risk.
"Installing a child restraint isn't always as simple as a couple of clicks and you're done," said Anne McCartt, the institute's senior vice president for research. "Sometimes parents blame themselves when they struggle, but oftentimes the problem lies with the vehicle not the user."
Just 21 of the 98 vehicles tested by the institute passed the group's car seat installation test.
David Sullivan, a car product analyst at consulting firm AutoPacific, said he is intimately aware of how hard it is to fit car seats into many vehicles. He test-drives cars as part of his job, checking out a new vehicle every week. Inside each car, he puts his kids -- an infant in a rear-facing seat and a toddler in a front-facing seat.
"A car seat and a car are two totally different things, so how do you make everything compatible?" Sullivan said. "It's not always easy."
Sullivan has become such an expert at fitting car seats, he can't help but visually inspect car seats as he walks through parking lots. Many times he can see from just from walking by that the car seat is installed incorrectly, he said.
The federal government began mandating a system for tethering car seats in 1999. The system, called the Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) Restraint System that began popping up in 2003 model-year cars, is supposed to make things easier on parents. But the institute discovered that many automakers aren't paying attention to the key factors that would make the system useful.
The goal was to make car seats easier to install by providing two clips at the base of the seat (called the seat bight) and one to tether the top of the car seat. The system is designed to keep the car seat from moving in the event of a crash.
Researchers from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute who worked with the institute on the study, asked 36 people to install three different types of car seats into the vehicles.
Because of the various design issues, volunteers could correctly install car seats only 13 percent of the time.
Many times, the latches at the base of the car seat are buried too far into the seat bight and people have a hard time figuring out where the latches are. The latches should be no more than three-quarters of an inch under the seat material, but they are often buried deeper. But in the tests, parents couldn't find them.
And parents often did not use the top tether, which helps anchor seats in the car, because they couldn't find where they were supposed to attach the strap.
The institute argues that making the LATCH system easier to use might encourage more parents to use child restraints and install them properly. In 2010, 29 percent of children between 1 and 3 years old who died in car crashes were not sitting in car seats, which is a marked improvement over 1985, when 71 percent of similarly aged children who died in accidents were unrestrained. Overall, the fatality rate for car accidents has been on a steady decline since the 1980s, when seat belt use became more common.
General Motors spokeswoman Sharon Basel said the automaker has been committed to child seat installation issues for at least 15 years and has run 75,000 inspection events around the country to help parents make sure their seats are secure.
"We agree that ease of access to the lower anchors and ease of access to the top tether are really a key factor in the proper installation of those seats," Basel said. "But we also recognize there is a lot of variation in safety seats and in car design."
GM has five vehicles on the institute's list of cars that make seat installation easy and two on the list of cars that don't meet any of the criteria.
Sullivan is a big believer in car seats, even though he has heard the pushback from his parents' generation, who claim they all did fine and raised children who lived to adulthood even though they didn't have fancy car seats and other safety contraptions.
Carmakers also don't appear to take the compatibility between car seats and cars very seriously, Sullivan said. Consumers have begun demanding more and more safety features on their vehicles, and Sullivan said the next step will be demanding some kind of compatibility feature for car seats.
"Sometimes I wonder if they make it difficult on purpose," he said. "There's a lot more that can be done to make things easier."
2011 Models Meeting the Easy-Installation Criteria
Audi A4 Quattro
Chevrolet Equinox LT
Chevrolet Silverado 1500 Crew Cab LT
Chevrolet Suburban LT
Chevrolet Tahoe LS
Dodge Caliber Mainstreet
Dodge Grand Caravan
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
Mitsubishi Eclipse Coupe GS
Mitsubishi Lancer ES
Toyota Tacoma Extended Cab
Also tested: Chrysler Town & Country (2010)
2011 Models Not Meeting 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
Source: Insurance Institute of Highway Safety