Regardless of which came first, a classic car or a baby, many classic car owners are faced with a dilemma when going to strap in their kids for the first time to take a ride as a family. It wasn’t until 1964 that four major automobile manufacturers in the United States made front lap-seat belts standard equipment. The first seat belt law was a federal law, Title 49 of the United States Code, Chapter 301, Motor Vehicle Safety Standard, which took effect on January 1, 1968, that required all vehicles (except buses) to be fitted with seat belts in all designated seating positions. This law has since been modified to require three-point seat belts in outboard seating positions, and finally three-point seat belts in all seating positions.
The question of most parents in this situation is, what can you do if you have a car manufactured prior to 1968? And the answer is, it really depends on numerous factors and there is no clear cut answer. Vintage vehicles generally lack safety equipment (such as air bags, anti-lock brakes and reinforced crumple zones) that is standard in newer cars and trucks. Anyone riding around in a classic car without belts is at major risk if an accident occurs, and typically, the older the car, the less forgiving it will be in an accident.
The main priority should always be the safety of the child. According to the most recently published statistics on the Safe Ride 4 Kids website:
“Anywhere from 72% to 84% of child restraints show critical misuses. The most common forms of misuse are using the wrong seat for the child’s age and weight, loose safety belt attachment to the car seat and loose harness straps on the child. This is scary because another statistic says 96% of parents believe their child safety seats are installed correctly.”
I was fortunate to have my employer send me to a program to become a technician under the National Child Passenger Safety Program. As a recently married, childless woman (and chronic worrier), planning to eventually have children, the statistics presented in the program made my head spin. I had never known there was so much to know about child safety seats, and never did I think that so many parents were unintentionally putting their children as risk.
When approached to write this article, I was excited to share what I had learned and provide additional resources to those in my position to keep from feeling overwhelmed, as well as experienced parents. The information provided is taken directly from the certification program, but condensed to address specific needs of a reader of Throttle Girls Magazine. More information is out there and additional resources are listed at the end of the article.
The first thing you need to install a safety seat is a seatbelt or a LATCH system.
LATCH is a system that makes child safety seat installation easier—without using seat belts. LATCH is required on child
safety seats and most vehicles manufactured after September 1, 2002. LATCH-equipped vehicles have at least two sets of small bars, called anchors, located in the back seat where the cushions meet. LATCH-equipped child safety seats have a lower set of attachments that fasten to these vehicle anchors. Most forward-facing child safety seats also have a top strap (top tether) that attaches to an anchor in the vehicle. Together, they make up the LATCH system.
There are 2 manufacturer standard types of seat belts. One is a lap belt, which offers a 2-point protection, as the belt hits at 2 points on the body – across each hip. The second type is a lap-and-shoulder belt, which provides 3-point protection, across the hips and shoulder.
The components of the seat belt are the buckle, latch plate, retractor, anchor, and webbing. Of these components, the latch plate or retractor would typically provide the locking mechanism that will keep a child’s car seat secure and in place. It’s important to figure out what you have in your car prior to installation, because it will make the entire process much easier. To make things even harder, in vehicles made before 1996, seat belts were not federally required to provide a locking feature. Some vehicles did have the locking feature, but it was voluntary on the part of the manufacturer.
Seat Belt Parts:
Buckles accept the latch plate and hold the seat belt in place.
Retractors gather and store extra webbing in the vehicle. Most lap-and-shoulder seat belts
have one retractor that holds the webbing for both the lap and shoulder webbing. Some lap-and-shoulder belts have two retractors – one for the lap belt and one for the shoulder belt.
Anchors attach the seat belts to a strong location in the vehicle.
Webbing is the fabric part of the seat belt that crosses the person or holds the car seat or
Latch plates connect the seat belt webbing to a buckle in the vehicle.
There are different types of latch plates that you may encounter while checking your car’s seats. It is important to verify the type, as installation will vary depending on each type.
• Switchable (mainly Volvo’s have these, and can be changed from lockable to sliding)
• Sliding (only on lap-and-shoulder systems so for the purposes of this article installation won’t be covered for this type)
• Dynamic locking (found primarily in cars 2011 and newer)
A locking latch plate on the seat belt can be found in older vehicles and in the center seat of some newer vehicles. Some have a locking bar found on the bottom or back. The bar moves back and forth, as well as up and down. It can be made of metal or plastic. If the seat belt webbing and latch plate lie flat, the latch plate will lock. If the latch plate is tilted, the latch plate will remain unlocked.
The steps to test if the latch plate locks are:
1. Buckle the seat belt.
2. Give a firm tug on the lap portion of the seat belt while pulling up on it. If the webbing
does not slide through the latch plate, it is locked
Sliding and Sewn-on Latch plates
While all seat belts will lock in a crash, not all seat belts have a latch plate that will lock to secure a car seat. Sliding latch plates are found on lap-and-shoulder belts.
Dynamic locking latch plates are currently located in the front seat of some vehicles and lock the lap-and-shoulder belt when
engaged by an occupant during a crash. This latch plate is NOT intended to lock the seat belt for a car seat.
Sewn-on latch plates have no locking feature or moving parts, and rely on the retractor’s locking system. With a sewn-on latch plate, test the seat belt – NOT the latch plate. Buckle the seat belt and test to see if it locks by firmly pulling up on the lap portion of the seat belt. The seat belt webbing will not lengthen if some type of locking mechanism has been engaged.
TYPES OF RETRACTORS
In some vehicles the retractor – not the latch plate – provides the locking part needed to keep a car seat in place at all times. The purpose of the retractor is to store the excess webbing. These retractors are usually present when a non-locking latch plate (sliding, sewn-on, or dynamic locking) is present.
NHTSA sets Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards which required a lock-ability feature on vehicles made after
1996. If the vehicle is older than 1996, you might have a locking latch plate, but it is more likely that the seat belt retractor is
an emergency locking retractor with a sliding latch plate and without locking ability. In that case, you will have to use an
approved step to put the seat belt into a locked mode (locking clip or car seat lock-off).
An emergency locking retractor locks only in a sudden stop, acceleration, turn, or crash.
This retractor type, along with one of the non-locking latch plates – sliding, sewn-on, or dynamic locking – cannot secure a car seat without an extra, approved step.
In vehicles made before 1996, seat belts were not federally required to provide a locking feature. Some vehicles did have the locking feature, but it was voluntary on the part of the manufacturer.
Vehicle manufacturers approved two additional steps to secure a car seat in vehicles where neither the retractor nor the latch plate can be locked at all times.
Parents with vehicles that lack a locking feature, or are unsure of the components of a car seat are encouraged to visit: http://cert.safekids.org/get-car-seat-checked to find a technician in their area to determine what would be the best application.
Some seat belts with automatic locking retractors may appear to have no locking ability if tested when the seat belt is pulled out a very short distance (less than 12 to 18 inches) from the retractor. That 12 to 18-inch space is known as the dead-zone and may fool you into thinking the seat belt has no locking ability.
Automatic locking retractors (ALR) are generally easy to use with car seats, but are almost never found in newer vehicles.
Switchable retractors start out in an unlocked “comfortable” mode for adult occupants and switch to a locked mode for use with a car seat. Seat belts with switchable retractors switch to a tight, locked seat belt to install a car seat. A switchable retractor switches to an automatic locking retractor by pulling the belt all the way out slowly. Just like the switchable latch plate, you manually have to
change this retractor from an emergency mode to the always or automatic locking mode. Once switched to the automatic locking retractor mode, this belt will only shorten and cannot be lengthened. To return to the emergency locking mode, this belt must be unbuckled and then all of the webbing fed back into the retractor.
Once you have the components of your car figured out, you can then pick out a car seat. Selection of the car seat, verifying it is not recalled, and ensuring it is appropriate for the child’s age, height, weight, and developmental levels is crucial.
The next article will cover choosing the right size car seat for your child and how to determine what will work best for your family in the long run, as well as car seat placement.
If you can’t wait for the next article, and want to learn more please access the following resources:
The Parents Central Guide for choosing the right seat for your child.
Winter coats and car seat safety – avoid dressing kids in bulky winter clothes before strapping them in and the risks.
Maggie Barnett is the Executive Assistant at the Traffic Improvement Association of Michigan, and has recently become a Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician through the Certifying body of Safe Kids Worldwide, with curriculum provided by NHTSA in collaboration with The National CPS Board, sponsored by State Farm. All information provided was taken directly from the curriculum used for certification.
Maggie in no way endorses or encourages the installation of non-manufacturer standard belts, as their effectiveness has not been tested nor evaluated by NHTSA, as such no liability can be assumed. She recommends that all parents with concerns about the installation or selection of a child safety seat contacts a CPS Technician in their area to have their individual situation accessed. These appointments allow parents to come in for a hands on installation demonstration where they will learn how to install their car seat correctly and safely every time, as there are too many variables that can be encountered to address in these series of articles. Please follow all manufacturer recommendations by both the vehicle and car seat manufacturers to ensure the safety of your child.