Did you know that your vehicle owner’s manual is a necessary tool for installing your child’s car seat correctly? If you did, you likely do not need this post. If, like me, you’ve basically never opened your owner’s manual … well, then keep reading.
Most owner’s manuals will have information on child restraint installation somewhere after the section on how to operate your seat belt. It’s usually called “Child Restraints” or “Child Safety” or something similar. It will begin by discussing the types of car seats on the market and by reminding you to follow your car seat manufacturer’s instructions for proper installation.
Read through the ENTIRE section on child restraints, and don’t be like me and skip the text in boxes. Read it all. And since I’m a teacher, I know that reading comprehension is enhanced when you know what information you are looking for. Thusly, I’ve compiled a list of exactly WHAT information you want to gather from your vehicle manual prior to beginning to install a car seat. If you do not have your owner’s manual handy, a quick web search should turn up a PDF copy—make sure you have the correct model year.
What information do I look for in my vehicle owner’s manual?
1- The seating positions appropriate for a car seat
Look in your owner’s manual for information about where you can and cannot install a car seat. The presence of a tether anchor or Universal Anchorage System (UAS) anchor points does NOT automatically mean you can install a car seat in that position. (I realize that seems quite counter-intuitive!)
For example, many Subaru models recommend not installing a child restraint in the center position. Here is an extract from the 2006 Forester manual:
Some vehicles have three seat belts in their centre or back row, but this does not automatically mean you can safely seat three children (in child restraints) or even three adults across the row.
For example, the Toyota RAV4 is notorious for having a back seat with three seating positions that cannot be occupied at the same time. Here is an excerpt from the 2014 manual:
I would not even consider it safe to sit three adults across the back of a RAV4. Here is what the seat belt configuration back there looks like:
As you can see, the centre lap belt comes out from behind where the driver’s side passenger would be sitting.
Here is information found in the 2015 Dodge Grand Caravan (DGC) manual regarding seating positions:
And here’s another limitation, this time in a 2014 Corolla:
2- The location of the tether points and Universal Anchorage System (LATCH) points
Remember that in Canada, by law, all forward-facing car seats must be tethered. You cannot install a forward-facing car seat in a position without a dedicated tether anchor. You cannot share anchors between car seats nor can you use a tether anchor spot designated for the centre for a seat installed outboard, or vice versa.
Universal Anchorage System points or LATCH (Lower Anchors & Tethers for Child Seats) anchors are located in certain positions in all vehicles manufactured since September 2002. Your manual will show you where they are, as will little plastic buttons on the vehicle seat.
Here is a “map” of both tether anchor points and UAS points in the 2015 DGC:
(The circles indicate UAS points or LATCH anchors, and the little seats with anchors are the three tether points.)
Although it has seating for five, there are only three tether points in the DGC. In the back row, a forward-facing harnessed seat can only be installed in the centre. (And remember that there are very few booster seats that work well in the outboard positions in the back row.)
Note that tethering can be tricky in some trucks, which have fabric tether anchors rather than the metal ones you may be used to. While this will all be indicated in the owner’s manual, this post gives you a nice overview with real-life photos of various tethering points in trucks.
3- How to lock the vehicle seat belt
Note in the map above that the seating positions in the DGC are labelled as either “ALR” or “Cinch.” When you are installing a car seat using the seat belt (follow your car seat manual instructions!), you need to know how to “lock” your seat belt into place. Your vehicle manual will explain exactly how to engage the locking mechanism for your given seat belt.
To lock “ALR” seat belts, you pull the shoulder belt all the way out and then slowly let it ratchet back. A “cinch” seat belt locks when you’ve buckled it and pulled the slack out. A nice explanation of seat belt locking mechanisms can be found here.
4- The weight limit for the UAS anchors
Did you know that you can only install your child’s car seat using UAS up to a certain combined weight of car seat + child? While seat belts are tested to restrain several hundred pounds, the UAS anchors in a vehicle are only tested to a typical maximum of 65 lb (the combined weight of the child AND the car seat).
For car seats manufactured after Feb 27, 2014, the child weight limit for using UAS will be indicated on a sticker on the seat and in the manual. More recent vehicle owner’s manuals will also specify a weight limit, as shown in the 2015 DGC manual:
If you cannot find this information in either your car seat manual or your vehicle owner’s manual, call your car seat or vehicle manufacturer to confirm. If you have a particularly heavy car seat, expect to switch to a seat belt install when your child weighs somewhere around 35–40 lb. For lighter weight car seats, you can expect to safely use a UAS installation for longer, sometimes until the stated weight maximum of the seat.
5- How to position the vehicle seat for car seat installation
This varies from vehicle to vehicle. Some manuals do not specify and usually having the seat reclined to a comfortable and safe position for an average adult will be fine, but call your vehicle manufacturer to confirm. Some vehicles with seats that slide forwards and backwards have specific rules too.
Here’s the 2014 RAV4 manual again:
If you are installing a car seat on a vehicle row that can be pushed forward or backward, the manual may specify where to position the vehicle seat when installing a car seat, as the Mazda 5 does:
This requirement makes it difficult to fit car seats in the Mazda 5’s back row, unfortunately.
6- The position the vehicle headrest should be in when installing a forward-facing seat
Do you put the tether strap under or over the head restraint, or do you remove the head restraint completely? Depends on the vehicle, depends on the model year!
Here’s an extract from the 2016 Madza 3 manual:
And the 2015 Subaru Forester:
Some manuals tell you to position the vehicle headrest in whatever position gives you the best fit for your car seat, and some have very specific requirements.
Sometimes the requirements of the vehicle and the requirements of the car seat are not compatible. Some headrests are so forward-leaning that you cannot get a secure install of your car seat. Some car seats require a headrest in place, while a vehicle may require removal of the headrest. Try to find this out before buying your car seat.
Sometimes the information about headrest placement with a car seat will be found in the manual’s section on headrests rather than in the car seat section.
A Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST) can help you identify known incompatibilities with your vehicle model. If you are in doubt about your car seat installation, it is wise to get in touch with your car seat manufacturer, and you can often send photos via email to have them approve your installation or give you tips on their particular seat in your vehicle.
7- When a child can safely sit without a booster seat
Every vehicle manual will feature a section on safe adult seat belt fit for children. The information will be pretty universal.
Here is an example from the 2017 Odyssey:
8- When a child can safely ride in the front seat
Keep your kids younger than 13 in the back seat! It even says so in the warning on your vehicle’s visor. The warnings all read as “12 or under,” so translate that to mean that once your child turns 13 they can sit in the front (if you want them to).
9- Special Precautions with air bags
More and more vehicles are equipped with side curtain airbags in the back seats. Did you know that no one should be leaning their head against the vehicle window in a vehicle with side curtain airbags?
Here’s the section on this matter from the 2017 Mazda 5 manual:
10- Information regarding a vehicle’s inflatable seatbelts
If your vehicle has inflatable seat belts, confirm that you are using a car seat that is approved for use with inflatable seat belts (assuming you are doing a seat belt installation). This varies by car seat manufacturer: check before you install!
As you can see, there is A LOT of critical information hiding in your vehicle owner’s manual. It is a necessary tool for correct car seat installation, and it’s a good idea to read the section on car seats before purchasing your car seat when possible. If something in your vehicle manual doesn’t jive with something in your car seat manual, if something doesn’t make sense or is unclear or if a piece of information is missing, contact the manufacturer. If you want help understanding your vehicle manual and how it relates to car seat installation, meet with a Child Passenger Safety Technician near you.