If you haven't buckled a child in a car seat since the days when the Cabbage Patch Kids ruled the toy aisle, the car seat you just bought for your grandchild looks different from what you remember. And, according to a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), there's a 44% chance you're not using one of its most important features – the top tether.
Today, 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 to the vehicle.
You might wonder why everyone isn't using tethers if they've been around for 17 years. 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: Carefully read your car's owner's manual and the child seat manual (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: Washington inspection stations or Oregon inspection stations.