If you haven't already heard, there have been some major changes in the world of car seats. A new universal system called LATCH (lower anchors and tethers for children) was designed to make it easier to correctly install car seats in vehicles, and recently became available in all new vehicles and car seats. As of September 2002, all new car seats must come equipped with parts that clip on to lower anchors (pre-installed in the fold of each vehicle's seats) as well as tether straps on the top back of each car seat that can be securely fastened to tether anchors installed in the vehicle (usually on the floor or base of the vehicle seat) – thus eliminating the need to use the vehicle's regular seat belt.
While the goal of a universal and easy method of car seat installation is noble, the fact is that even if you buy a brand new car seat, it will be several years before most of us own a LATCH compatible car. Given that the majority of parents will still be faced with installing car seats the "old fashioned way" – which is to say with plenty of potential for error – there are a few things you'll want to know about insuring your child's safety in the car.
Unless you have a LATCH compatible vehicle and car seat, not all safety seats can be used in all types of vehicles or seating positions. And with numerous models of child safety seats, hundreds of models of passenger vehicles, and a variety of seat belt systems available today, it is well worth your while to take a few extra minutes to educate yourself on this important and potentially life-saving task.
While it is true that correctly installing a car seat includes making sure that in the end, the seat does not move more than an inch side to side or front to back, there are many variables involved in getting to this result. The best way to get it right is to read the child safety seat's instruction manual and review all information in the vehicle owner's manual. Even a seemingly simple mistake such as loose harness straps, mis-threading a seatbelt, or using the seat for a child who exceeds the seat's weight limit can have very serious consequences. If you happen to be the type of person who rarely (if ever) reads directions, now is a good time to change your ways.
In addition to reading the instructions, there are a large and growing number of certified child passenger safety technicians across the country who offer instruction (typically free of charge) at local fire stations, retailers, and car seat check-up events. To find what's available in your area, start by going to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's website and click on Child Safety Inspections, contact your local Safe Kids coalition and enter your state under "Find coalitions and events near you", or check with your local fire or police departments.