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Safety group ranks vehicles with easiest — and hardest — systems for installing children’s car seats

A Maryland State Police trooper ensures that a child’s car seat is installed correctly at a safety seat check in Cumberland, Md. The Insurance Institute For Highway Safety has issued new rankings of vehicles that have the easiest and most difficult systems for installing car seats and booster seats. (Steven Bittner/Cumberland Times-News via AP)

Anyone who has muscled a child’s car seat or booster into a vehicle’s built-in anchor system knows it can require loads of patience and even brute force. Hunting for the anchor bars often buried deep inside the vehicle seats — and then successfully hooking the child’s car seat or booster to them — could tick off  Mary Poppins.

Now the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has released a new ranking of 2015-model vehicles with the easiest — and hardest — car seat anchor systems to use. Such “LATCH” systems have been required since 2002. The organization, a nonprofit research group funded by the auto insurance industry, says it hopes the rankings will help families when car shopping and encourage automakers to change the designs of  low performers.

That minivan you bought specifically to ferry the kids? It didn’t make the top spot. The Honda Odyssey and Dodge Grand Caravan ranked in the second tier of “acceptable,” while the Toyota Sienna ended up with the lowest ranking of “poor.”

Those with the easiest-to-use safety systems were the BMW 5 series, the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class and the Volkswagen Passat.

The second-tier “acceptable” category also included the Ford Explorer, the Honda Pilot and the Toyota Camry. The third-tier “marginal” ranking included the Honda Accord, Honda CR-V, Subaru Outback,  Subaru Forester, Ford Fusion and Ford Escape.

Those in the worst category of “poor” included the Volkswagen Jetta, the Hyundai Accent, the Ford Fiesta and the Nissan Altima.

The insurance institute says a low ranking doesn’t mean a vehicle’s child restraint system is unsafe, just difficult to use. (The ratings aren’t based on crash tests.) The group said it measured how accessible the lower LATCH anchors were in the vehicle seat, the force required to attach the child’s seat to the hardware, and how easy it was to use the top tether.

Studies show that child seats attached via the LATCH system, rather than with the vehicle seat belts, are more likely to be installed correctly. The LATCH system includes metal bars anchored where the vehicle seatback meets the bottom seat cushion that restrain the car seat or booster. Top tethers also connect the top of the child car seat to the vehicle’s floor, seatback or ceiling to prevent it from pitching forward in a crash. Experts say the top tether should be used with every forward-facing child seat, whether it is secured via a seat belt or the lower LATCH anchors.

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