Using the top tether in conjunction with installing a forward facing car seat is one of the easiest things a parent can do to help protect their children. It’s the law in Canada to use a tether for all forward facing seats, and has been since 1989; in Australia all seats have been tethered since the 1970s. And yet in the United States, where it’s been highly encouraged since 2000, tether use is often less than 50%, and in some types of vehicles it’s as low as 17.2% (Jermakian, 2011).
What is a Tether?
The tether is a strap attached to the top back of a convertible or combination seat, and it attaches to a tether anchor in the vehicle (sometimes older vehicle manuals will call it a “top strap”). We refer to it as the top tether since that’s a clear way to think of it.
Since 2000, car seats have had tether anchors, and since September 1, 2000 for the 2001 model year top tethers have been required in vehicles. For older vehicles there were retrofit programs to install tether anchors in cars without factory installed anchors; this was especially prevalent in Canada where tethers were required by law to be used on forward facing seats, but not required hardware in the vehicle until the 2001 model year. But now, since tethers have been standard equipment for the past 15 years, many companies are running out of spare parts to retrofit older vehicles.
Why the Top Tether is Important
A top tether keeps the top of the child’s car seat back an additional four to six inches during a crash. What this means for the child and parent is that the seat and child are less likely to impact the back of the seat in front of them, or a center console (Klinich 2012). If a child’s head impacts the back of the seat in front during a crash they are more likely to suffer head and neck injuries; these injuries can be very severe or fatal, so reducing them is vital (Arbogast 2004). As an added bonus, because the seat is kept further back, the arms and legs are also less likely to be injured due to impact with the seats in front. While not the law in the United States, it’s important enough to endure a little inconvenience and either move children in your vehicle around so that they are seated where there are tether anchors, or take the time and spend money if necessary to get them retrofitted in an older vehicle.
Top Tether Anchor Locations and Types
Unfortunately, there are no standard places for top tether anchors in vehicles. They can be located in the vehicle’s ceiling, the back hatch, on the back of the back seat, on the cargo floor area, behind the headrest, or on the rear filler panel.
Tether anchors are not all a standard style. Most look like a rectangular metal piece screwed in at one end and open in the middle (like a pinned down O). Some tether anchors look like they’re just part of the vehicle rather than a dedicated tether anchor, some are loops, and some look like they’re holes in the metal. Your vehicle’s manual will list the location and style of the tether anchors.
Studies show that tether use is higher in cars with simpler tether anchor systems, and thus there is a proposal by NHTSA (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) to standardize tether anchor hardware and positioning so parents won’t be so confused by where theirs are located (Jermakian, 2014, Cicchino 2015). However, until and if that happens, a vehicle’s manual lays out where every tether anchor is located.
Tethering Rear Facing Car Seats
Some car seats and vehicles allow a seat to be tethered rear facing. In Europe this is far more common, in Australia it’s required, but in the United States very few car seat manufacturers permit tethering rear facing. Canada has said that rear facing tethering is not permitted at all.
If your child’s car seat allows tethering rear facing (this is a VERY small number of car seats anymore, we’re seeing more Anti-Rebound Bars instead) and your vehicle has no restrictions against it, it is a parental decision to tether or not. In the United States it’s never required (all car seats pass stringent safety testing rear facing without a tether), and some car seats have the option of an anti-rebound bar rather than a rear facing tether.
Britax used to allow tethering rear facing, but on January 28, 2015 (for their ClickTight convertibles) and over the summertime 2015 (for their G4.1 convertibles) it was phased out. If you own an older Britax that allows for tethering rear facing you may choose to use the tether while rear facing, unless there are restrictions from the vehicle. If you have a Britax car seat that was made after these dates, it will not allow tethering rear facing. There are manuals available online showing how to tether a Britax rear facing, and they were accurate at the time, but since this changed during 2015, it is essential to follow the manual that comes with your seat.
Cars manufactured since the 2001 model year and car seats made since the year 2000 can be tethered when installed forward facing. It’s an easy way to help protect your children against spinal and head injuries, in addition to arm and leg injuries.
Arbogast, K. B., Cornejo, R. A., Kallan, M. J., Winston, F. K., & Durbin, D. R. (2002, September). Injuries to children in forward facing child restraints. In Annu Proc Assoc Adv Automot Med (Vol. 46, No. 2, pp. 13-230).
Cicchino, J. B., & Jermakian, J. S. (2015). Vehicle characteristics associated with LATCH use and correct use in real-world child restraint installations. Journal of safety research, 53, 77-85.
Eichelberger, A. H., Decina, L. E., Jermakian, J. S., & McCartt, A. T. (2014). Use of top tethers with forward-facing child restraints: Observations and driver interviews. Journal of safety research, 48, 71-76.
Jermakian, J. S., & Wells, J. K. (2011). Observed use of tethers in forward-facing child restraint systems. Injury prevention, 17(6), 371-374. doi: 10.1136/ip.2010.030171.
Klinich, K. D., Manary, M. A., & Weber, K. B. (2012). Crash protection for child passengers: Rationale for best practice. The UMTRI Research Review,43(1), 1.