The Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children system already is a part of many vehicles and car seats, Jeffrey Runge, administrator of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, said at a news briefing on the issue. The system is required on all car seats and most vehicles purchased after Sept. 1, he said.
"Even the most dedicated and knowledgeable parent has had difficulty with (car seats), whether it's the failure to buckle the child snugly to the seat or to buckle the seat snugly into the vehicle seat," Runge told reporters. "This technology really does eliminate those challenges."
Carmakers place the LATCH system's anchors between a vehicle's rear seat cushions and either on the rear window shelf of a sedan or on the floor of a minivan or SUV. The connections are engineered to the same standards as seat belt anchors, Runge said.
Newer car seats include belts with hooks that attach to the anchors, ending a parent's need to struggle with threading a seat belt through the back of a car seat. When the hooks and anchors are connected, the belts are pulled tight to lock the car seat in place.
Parents still need to have an expert check their child's seat and its installation, said Chuck Hurley, vice president of the National Safety Council's Transportation Safety Group. Several organizations and companies provide the inspections for free, he said.
"We have a special obligation to protect kids. They don't set the level of risk they face," Hurley told the news conference. "Adults do that for them, and often don't do a very good job."
Automaker DaimlerChrysler already has provided about 45,000 free inspections, said Dieter Zetsche, president of the Chrysler Group.
"The seats still need inspecting and parents still need training, there's no substitute for that," Zetsche said. The inspection is available for any make and model of car, and parents have told the company of 20 cases where the inspectors' suggestions and information protected children during an accident, he said.
The system's benefits can be extended to those who own some older car seats, said Carol Helminski, a safety representative with car seat maker Graco. The company sells LATCH conversion kits for its car seats made up to 6 years ago, she told reporters.
Despite LATCH's time- and effort-saving features, parents' awareness of the system is spreading surprisingly slowly, Runge said. A DaimlerChrysler-sponsored study indicates 56 percent of drivers with children under age 9 remain unaware of the system, Zetsche said.
To ensure the new system is adopted more rapidly, NHTSA, DaimlerChrysler and others are sponsoring the SeatCheck public service campaign. Parents can call 866-SEAT-CHECK (866-732-8243) or visit the seatcheck.org Web site for information on LATCH and car seat inspection locations.
The Toys 'R Us retail chain and the Lamaze birthing class organization also will provide their customers with information on the system.