Updated January 2020.
What is a top tether?
Why is it so very important for forward-facing kids? And yes, you MUST use it for every forward-facing harnessed seat in Canada, no exceptions.
The top tether is a strap at the top/head area of harnessed seats in the forward-facing orientation. A small handful of seats can be tethered rear-facing, and we discuss that in detail here.
If you have a forward-facing harnessed child please read this article. Correctly attaching your top tether strap is one of the very best things you can do to protect your forward-facing child from head and neck injuries.
What seats have tethers?
All harnessed seats that can be installed forward facing come with a top tether strap, and have for quite some time. If your seat does not have a tether strap it’s either way expired, or has been modified and had the tether removed. If the latter is the case please follow up with the seat manufacturer for advice as it may not be safe to use.
What does a tether do?
What’s the point of the tether? Simply put it prevents your child’s head from striking whatever is in front of it. In formal, technical terms, it’s to meet head excursion requirements. The Canada Motor Vehicle Safety Standards — the ‘Standards’ from Transport Canada — state that the forward head movement cannot exceed 28.4″ (720mm), measured from a point on the test bench that is behind the child’s head (the truly curious can scroll down to figure 6 for a schematic of the test bench).
This video demonstrates the difference in head movement between a tethered seat and an untethered seat. The seats were otherwise correctly installed and the dummies correctly harnessed. Without that top tether holding the top of the car seat back the whole restraint pivots at the belt path and flings the dummy forward. Massive head injuries can result.
So hopefully now you’re sold on the extreme importance of properly tethering a seat. Remember that in a real vehicle it isn’t vast empty space in front of the child — there’s a vehicle seat, maybe even including an after-market DVD player — and that is what your child’s head and face will contact in a crash. And now on to the ‘how to’ part of this article.
Tether hook, strap, and adjuster
This is a tether hook. It is the exact same type of hook on every forward-facing car seat in Canada. The thin bit of metal is flexible and the thicker bit is sturdy metal that is rigorously tested to withstand the crash forces put on it in a collision. It’s connected to webbing that is also tested, just like seat belt webbing and the webbing on the harness, to hold up and perform as designed.
There will be an adjuster mechanism of some sort on the tether strap, that fixes and locks the length of the tether strap. It might look like one of these two common styles, or resemble something else, but its function is to keep the tether at a certain length while the car seat is installed.
Where the tether strap attaches to the car seat shell may vary as well. Some seats have a single strap with a single attachment point; others have various V-shaped designs. It’s important to make sure the tether strap is not twisted along its length.
What does the tether hook connect to?
Do you drive a car model year 2000 or newer, or a van, light truck, or SUV model year 2001 or newer? Good news – you already have at least three tether anchor points factory in your vehicle. You might have more. The odd vehicle allows you to add more than you got off of the assembly line but they’re the exception. Generally speaking, after those dates, what it came with is what you get.
That also means you can only install a forward facing car seat in a seating position with a tether anchor, so if you want the flexibility to put a forward-facing child anywhere you want to, it’s a feature to pay special attention to when shopping for a vehicle with three rows. Tether anchors are often scarce in the 3rd row.
Unless the vehicle manufacturer specifically says so, you can’t use the tether anchor from the adjacent seating position, you can’t use one tether anchor for two tether hooks, and you can’t use cargo hooks instead of tether anchors.
You definitely can’t attach your tether anchors to random places in the back of your vehicle and call it good. For real. Take home message here? You absolutely must read your vehicle manual to know where the tether anchors are and what they look like, and use the designated anchor for the seating position you’re installing in.
Where are tether anchors located?
On newer vehicles they may be marked with this symbol – those ones are easy to find and identify.
They take a variety of other forms as well, and some are pictured here:
The location varies widely as well, and may not be the same for every seating position in one vehicle. Consult your vehicle manual, and look under captain’s chairs, on the floor, on the seat back, on the rear sill of a sedan, on the back sill of the 3rd row of a van/SUV, and on the ceiling. Often hatchbacks will have the centre anchor on the ceiling with the two outer anchors on the seat back or floor. Don’t guess – ask the vehicle manufacturer!
Sometimes the location and look of tether anchors can be confusing. This photo gallery has a number of oddities, and tips for connecting the hook. If you’re having trouble see if your vehicle is on the list.
Remember that part about reading your vehicle manual? A handful of vehicles (mostly some Fords and some Mazdas) specifically instruct you to give your tether strap a half-twist and connect the hook in what is considered ‘upside down.’ Ordinarily we connect the hook with the strong thick part on the top and the thin flexible part facing the floor, with a flat strap with no twists. If your vehicle manual directs you to do otherwise, do what they say. They’re the ones who have tested that anchor point and know how it will hold in a crash.
Adding more tether anchors to an older vehicle
Now how about those of you with older vehicles?
The good news: As of model year 1989 it became mandatory for vehicle manufacturers to provide pre-drilled holes which could accommodate a tether bolt, and with a few exceptions most vehicles of that era can be retrofitted.
The bad news: As user-ready tether anchors were required in vehicles as of 2001/2002, we are now nearly two decades past the point where manufacturers produced the parts to retrofit older vehicles with, and for many vehicle models the parts no longer exist. You will need to inquire with the parts department of your vehicle manufacturer to find out where those points are, how many you can get, how much the part costs, and how much to install it.
Some dealers will still do one for free but most won’t anymore. Sometimes you can order the parts and install it yourself with a torque wrench (the bolt needs to be tightened a specific amount). Unfortunately we are hearing more and more stories about the parts no longer being available, or an exorbitant amount to install it, putting parents in a very tough position about how to safely transport their children. We strongly discourage any DIY solutions because they may not hold up in a crash.
How is the tether routed?
You can route the tether strap any time when you install a seat, but you generally don’t tighten it until the very end of your installation. Alternately you can flip the tether strap over into the seating area of the car seat so you don’t lose it behind the seat while installing (because we’ve never done that…).
Check the part of your vehicle manual that tells you how to route the tether strap relative to the vehicle head restraint (head rest). Some go under, some go over. Some allow you or require you to remove the head restraint altogether, and some insist it stays on. Good old vehicle manual…good thing you’ve read it!
Sometimes tether anchors are located in such a spot that it requires acrobatics and creativity to install the seat. This is a 2000 Chevy Avalanche. To access the anchor you have to flip the seat bottom forward, and tilt the vehicle seat back…and then dangle the car seat in the air while routing the strap down and behind, put the seat back and seat bottom into place, and then install. If you’re putting two forward-facing seats side by side on that part of the bench then two have to dangle in the air at once. Thankfully now in 2020 most vehicles are a lot easier to work with than this one was.
Video of tether strap and tether anchor
These videos walk you through forward-facing installations, ending with the top tether connection. If you’re a visual learner take a peek!
Storing a tether hook
What if your seat is installed rear-facing – then what do you do with the tether? In a crash it could become a wicked projectile so you don’t want it flopping around freely. There is usually a spot to clip or stow the tether – once again, that trusty manual will come in handy.
Non-use and misuse of the top tether anchor is one of the most frequent things we correct at seat checks. Please take the time to double check your tethering set up, and if in doubt, ask us for help. You can meet with a tech privately, or post a question on our Facebook page.