Parents who need to install child safety seats in their new car often feel that the cards are stacked against them. Even though the Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) attachment system was specifically created to make installation easier than just by using seatbelts, parents still find it difficult to install a child safety seat correctly.

That's according to a report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The group examined the 98 top-selling new vehicle models and found that regular parents could reliably install child seats using the LATCH system in only 21 of them. This is one reason why, as reports, 70 percent of children are not properly restrained in cars.

There are two main problems with new cars when it comes to installing safety seats, according to the IIHS report. One is that many new cars bury the steel anchors too deeply under the back of the seat cushion, making it challenging to attach the child seat hooks to it properly. These anchors should be no more than 3/4 inch below the level of the seat bottom for easiest access. Sometimes access is hampered by the seatback, a problem that can be relieved by reclining the seat for a better approach while connecting the hooks to the anchors.

Typical installation mistakes included not orienting the connectors the right way when attaching them, snapping them to the wrong seat hardware or twisting the attachment straps. Leaving the straps loose was the most frequent problem.

The other source of trouble in many new cars is the lack of anchors for the center seating position in the back seat of many vehicles that have three-abreast seating. Only 16 of the top-selling 98 vehicles had three sets of attachment anchors in their back seats. That means that the middle spot of the back row - the safest place to put a child seat - often isn't made to accommodate one using the LATCH system, so a user has to use the seatbelt instead.

In addition to the car-related problems, there is a parent-related problem: according to the study, many people think using the top tether for the seat is optional or unimportant. The tether is a strap that secures the top of the child seat, preventing it from flipping forward in a crash, so it must be correctly attached.

More than half of the volunteer parents who participated in the study didn't even bother to try to use the tether, and more than half of those who did try used the tether incorrectly. Usually they left too much slack in the strap, and sometimes they hooked it to the wrong place, according to IIHS.

There are many online sources of information on correct seat installation, such as these:

Once you have the seat in place, you should have it checked by a certified inspector. The dealership where you bought your car may have such an inspector on staff. If not, many fire and police stations have someone who can do the job. You can locate your nearest child safety seat inspector here:

What it means to you: Most cars make it hard to install child car seats correctly, but this job is too important to do wrong. Get your installation checked.

author photo

Dan Carney is a veteran auto industry observer who has written for, Motor Trend, AutoWeek, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Better Homes and Gardens and other publications. He has authored two books, "Dodge Viper" and "Honda S2000" and is a juror for the North American Car of the Year award. Carney covers the industry from the increasingly strategic location of Washington, D.C.

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