Of all the things you wouldn't want to do wrong, buckling your child in to his or her car seat must rank near the top. Yet when the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) recently studied car seat use, it found that 44% of us ignore one of the seat's most important features – its top tether.
All front-facing car seats have a top tether, typically located just behind the upper back of the child seat. The strap hooks to a vehicle's rear shelf, seatback, floor, cargo area, or ceiling. In a crash, it's designed to keep the seat from tipping forward, preventing facial and head injuries. Since 1999, the top tether has been a key component of the car seat LATCH system along with lower straps that also anchor into the vehicle.
You might wonder why everyone isn't using tethers if they've been around so long. Vehicle design is partly to blame. Cars manufactured before 2001 weren't required to have corresponding anchors for top tethers. And not until 2003 were lower anchors mandated.
But awareness seems to be the main problem. In the survey, IIHS asked non-users why they skipped the tether, and 30% responded they didn't realize it was there or didn't think their car had a corresponding anchor. Another 25% said they didn't know how to use it or where to attach it, and 13% admitted they were in too much of a hurry.
The big tether takeaway: Read your car's owner's manual and the child seat manual carefully (inadequately tightened, twisted, and improperly routed tethers are an issue, too). If you're still feeling unsure, take advantage of hands-on assistance at a Safe Kids Coalition inspection station in Washington or Oregon.