Just like buying a new car seat, buying a new vehicle can be very overwhelming. It’s hard to sift through all the information out there and to decide what should be a priority for your family. While shopping many people consider paint colour, fuel mileage, safety ratings, and built-in entertainment and navigation systems, but surprisingly few seem to consider functional seating capacity. If your family does or will include children it’s important to think long term about how the vehicle will accommodate car and booster seats as your children grow. There are a startling number of factors to consider from this perspective.
We have included a photo gallery to illustrate some of the more challenging vehicle design features that may impede a successful car or booster seat install, but first some details. But don’t be alarmed! Chances are you will find something that works with a particular vehicle, but your options might be limited. Consider each feature carefully and decide what matters overall to you. Would you like help narrowing down the options? The knowledgeable folks at car-seat.org (from whom we’ve learned, and continue to learn a great deal), particularly in the Car and Vehicle sub-forum, can probably save you time and aggravation if you post the particulars of your situation.
How many people do you regularly transport? Do you often have family visit and/or transport friends? How old are the people you transport most often?
How long do you expect to own this vehicle? How old will your children be at that time and what type of seats would they be in (rear-facing, forward-facing, booster)? Do you plan on having more children in the future?
Tether anchors: How many forward-facing children do you have or expect to have at one time? If the vehicle is older than 2002, has it been retrofitted with anchors if possible? If not, is the retrofit part still available or easy to find? If it’s a 3-row vehicle be aware that many have only one tether anchor in the 3rd row, and sometimes none at all. With few exceptions vehicles that come factory-equipped with tether anchors can not have additional ones added. Do not use a universal unregulated/untested tether anchor or get into “do it yourself” mode when it comes to this critical safety element. Contact a tech for a list of vehicles with more than three factory-equipped tether anchors if you anticipate needing the flexibility that multiple tether anchors offers.
Seat Belts: The type of seat belt present (lap belt or lap/shoulder belt), their locations, the length of the buckle stalk, whether the buckle is fixed and forward-leaning, whether the buckle sits forward of the bight (seat crease), and how the belt itself locks can all influence how and whether a car seat or booster seat can be installed in that location. Some types of belts are straight out incompatible with car and booster seats, and other new types, such as Ford’s inflatable belts, may not yet be fully tested or approved with some models of car or booster seats.
Headrests: More accurately called head restraints they serve an important function in protecting an adult’s head and neck against whiplash-type injuries. They are sometimes required to support a high back booster seat, always required for use with a backless booster seat, and often interfere with the installation of a forward-facing car seat. Whether head restraints are adjustable, removable, or fixed and forward-leaning can very much affect what car or booster seats can be used there.
Safety: When shopping for a new or used vehicle it’s worth the time to investigate any available information on safety ratings, such as those published by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. If purchasing an older vehicle investigate whether the seat belts are in good working order, or have ever been replaced (recommended after a vehicle is around 20-25 years old), and that existing safety features are undamaged and accounted for, such as airbags and tether anchors.
Seating Capacity: Many vehicles advertise themselves — or consumers assume — that seven seat belts means the ability to simultaneously transport seven people. While that is possible given the absolute right combination of people it’s not usually as easy as it looks. The same goes for many five-seaters that can’t actually seat five at the same time. The Car Seat Lady made a handy pictorial showing three types of seating configuration to watch for in a back seat. Essentially you want to avoid having seating positions cross over one another, or the middle be too narrow to accept a car or booster seat. Take careful note of any restrictions in three-row vehicles. Sometimes it’s not permitted to install any seat in the 3rd row if it’s especially small or what’s considered ‘stadium seating.’ Get that car dealer to dig out the manual for you to read carefully!
Try before you buy: Already own seats, and you’re convinced you want to continue using them? Take them with you and try them out. Install with UAS and then re-install with seat belt as eventually you’re going to max out the weight limit of the anchors and need to install with the belt. Not fond of your seats? Research before hand what would be suitable for the vehicle you’re considering, whether you’re willing to budget that into your purchase price, and whether they will properly fit your child.
Trucks: Trucks that do not have full-size cabs pose particular challenges due to their shallow back seats, access to tether anchors, and (in)ability to switch off the airbag in the front seat. Extended cab trucks with flip down back seats are especially challenging; due to their depth and non-compressible materials very little will install there, and some manufacturers may prohibit installing a seat there. No car or booster seat may be installed on a sideways facing jump seat, nor a rear-facing vehicle seat.
Interior Quirks and Geometry: Every vehicle interior is different but potential barriers to successful seat installation include the following. Illustrated where possible with a typical example. Thank you to all of the people who provided photos for this article.
Installation appears solid at first…
…but easily shifts like this. Not acceptable of course. Forward-facing installations with a forward-of-the-bight (FOTB) belt are not usually better as they tend to slide forward more than is allowable.
Overlapping lower anchors (UAS). The set in yellow is for the centre seating position; the set in blue is for the outboard seating position. Only one set can be used at a time and you must use the set indicated for each spot, not one from each.
Raised bight. Most vehicles have a crack or a gap at the location marked ‘seat turn/crease’ in this picture. A raised bight means the crack or gap is above that spot, and this can complicate some rear-facing installs. The lower anchors aren’t necessarily always as pictured here – they may be at the lower turn/crease, set into the bight, or recessed elsewhere.
Overlapping seat belts. These two seating positions cannot be used at the same time for anyone or any car seat due to the overlapping anchor points. What appears to be a popular five-passenger vehicle (Toyota Rav-4) is what a fellow tech referred to as a “four passenger vehicle with an extra seat belt for decoration.”
Off-set lower anchors. The position of the lower anchors on this van bench seat takes up two seating positions when in use.
Hard plastic at the seat bight. Many seats won’t install well against copious hard plastic at the seat bight. Most prevalent on SUVs and wagons where there is a 60/40 split. The hinge at the split and on each outer edge usually makes for a hard time with rear-facing seats.
Flip-down centre consoles or arm rests can be problematic for a rear-facing car seat install. If the pivot point of the console is too high compared to the edge of the car seat it won’t be held tightly in place and the risk is that it will impact a child’s face in a crash. A few vehicles have a mechanism to hold the console in place in just this situation, so read your vehicle manual carefully to see if this ‘fix’ applies to you. If a manual doesn’t prohibit installing a car seat there then go for it – but it still makes some parents uncomfortable.
Extremely narrow centre seats with closely spaced seat belt anchors. Who or what would fit there? Not much. The spacing there is about 11″.
Fixed, forward-leaning buckle stalks. The angle of the webbing is all wrong for a forward-facing car seat install. Attempts to pull on it to tighten usually result in something like this – jammed, bunched, and not at all tight.
Difficult to access tether anchors, usually in trucks. Acrobatics are sometimes required to balance a seat while routing the tether to awkward and hard to access anchor points.
Shallow back seats in extended cab trucks, or flip-down seats in trucks. Seat depth is often not sufficient to properly support a car seat, and hard plastic means the surface is not compressible. Usually some compression or give in the upholstery is needed to achieve a good installation.
Pronounced side bolsters, most often found in cars, can significantly reduce usable side-to-side space by forcing the car or booster seat to shift toward the centre.
Long buckle stalks. The sneaky thing about long buckle stalks is that they don’t always seem long until you try to install a car seat or use them with a booster seat. Sigh. For a harnessed seat it may be permissible to twist the female end up to three full turns (no half turns), and often this is enough to shorten the whole unit and get the buckle lowered and out of the belt path. Once in a while the buckle stalk is SO long it will go right into the belt path. This is okay so long as the whole thing is in there and not teetering on the edge. It is not permissible to twist a buckle stalk when used with a booster seat.
Fixed forward-leaning head rests (head restraints). Because this head restraint is not adjustable or removable it causes problems with forward-facing car seats and booster seats. The gap it creates between the seat back and booster makes this particular booster incompatible in this seating position.
Phewf, that might be it. Or at least that’s all we have pictures of. Did we miss something that causes you grief in your own vehicle? Tell us about it! So go forth and car shop – but look at the vehicle’s features with real, functional seating capacity in mind, armed with all of these helpful hints!