The differences between European and American cars and car seats
I’m sitting in the Budget Rental Car office in Florence, Italy, day dreaming as we wait for our number to be called. Suddenly I’m elbowed out of my day dream, “I think there’s a car seat emergency” whispers my husband. I look over at the counter where another customer is asking for help installing their rented car seat: “the seat belt isn’t locking at all; we can’t secure the seat” she says, in an American accent.
I tap the stranger on the shoulder, explain that European car seats and European vehicles don’t require/have ALR seat belts which can permanently lock around a car seat. Instead, these seats use friction between the seat belt and the child restraint, and friction between the vehicle seat and child restraint to provide pre-crash locking. Once an accident begins, the seat belt will retract and lock.
Pre-crash locking: friction versus a locked seat belt
The pre-crash stability provided by the friction for the European seats allows the car seat to stay in place during normal driving or during the early stages of the accident before the seat belt retracts and locks. This way, when the seat belt does retract and lock, it’s not trying to remove excess slack from the system and it’s able to secure the seat belt in the optimal position. This means it’s going to do a better job of holding on to the car seat and therefore the child, during the accident itself.
American and Australian car seats tend to not use friction so much to keep them in place. They tend to have very simple, straightforward seat belt paths on the car seats which don’t introduce a lot of friction into the system themselves. Instead, these seats lock the seat belt in one of three ways:
- either the car seat has an in-built lock-off mechanism; or
- the seat belt can be switched from the Emergency Locking Retractor (ELR) to the Automatic Locking Retractor (ALR); or
- You need to use a locking clip on the seat belt, by the latch plate, to fix the length of seat belt in place.
Both the US and the European approaches, when used properly, are safe ways to provide pre-crash locking and pre-crash stability to a car seat.
Other differences between European and American car seats include the presence of a chest clip. European car seats, by regulation, require that the child can be removed from the car seat in a single motion; so having both a crotch buckle and chest clip would breach the European regulation. That’s one reason that European car seats don’t have a chest clip. Another reason that perhaps you shouldn’t add chest clips to European car seats if you’re using them in Europe is in the event of an accident, emergency services are familiar with being able to remove children in a single motion and it may slow them down if they need to interact with a chest clip.
Chest clips are not actually required under the American regulation. They’re a bit of a cultural hangover: introduced to address the issue of misuse where parents were not tightening the harness straps sufficiently. As a result, American car seat manufacturers began to introduce chest clips. American consumers saw this as a safety feature and began to demand it. Now, all car seat manufacturers respond to that demand by putting chest clips on American car seats. Chest clips are not necessarily safer or less safe, however if your car seat comes with a chest clip, it’s been crash tested that way and I don’t recommend you remove it.
ISOfix versus LATCH
ISOfix and LATCH are pretty much the same thing, albeit with a few subtle differences. European car seats which offer ISOfix use a rigid style of ISOfix where rigid bars protrude from the back of the car seat at a fixed distance. They’re typically quite heavy and expensive but very easy to install. ISOfix is not mandatory for European car seats.
For LATCH, however, there are a handful of rigid LATCH seats in the US, but predominantly, LATCH is flexible so it is effectively an independent seat belt with ISOfix attachments on each end of the seatbelt. The latch belt goes through the same path as you would put the seatbelt and then latches onto the lower anchors in the vehicle.
Genuine ISOfix or rigid LATCH car seats are easier to install than flexible ISOfix (also known as ISOflex or LATCH straps), because you’re able to push the car seat into the vehicle anchors, and then you’re done, whereas with flexible ISOfix or latch straps, there are a few more steps and that can increase the risk of error of installing your car seat incorrectly. ISOfix was introduced specifically to reduce the error of installation when parents were using a car seat so LATCH doesn’t really address that problem as much.
Forward facing top-tethers
The fourth difference is that all US-certified forward-facing car seats must have a top-tether strap. European forward-facing car seats are not required to have a top-tether strap although some of the heavier ones will. The genesis of this is because the mandatory regulation in the US requires car seats pass the crash test only using the lap belt. The lap belt is positioned quite low on the car seat, and it doesn’t sufficiently reduce the amount of forward incursion that the child experiences, so the child still moves too far forward in the accident. So in order to keep the car seat far back enough, the top tether is required in US car seats. Not every European car has top tether anchors, and traditional European car seats rely on the shoulder belt part of the three-point seatbelt, so the European crash test is done with a three-point seat belt whereas the main US crash test is done with the lap-only seat belt. The shoulder part of the European seatbelt acts to reduce forward incursion of the child during a crash, and hold the top part of the car seat back.
Back to my funny story...
So, I tapped this lady on the shoulder in Budget, and I say “I’m really sorry to interrupt you, I couldn’t help but overhear, are you having trouble installing your car seat?” and she said “Yes! I can’t get the seatbelt to lock,” and the lady that she was trying to deal with across the counter mostly spoke Italian, so that wasn’t going to end all that well. I said “Oh, are you trying to use an American car seat?” to which she said “No, I rented the car seat from Budget but it wasn’t installed. I’m trying to install it myself.”
I said, “Oh! European car seats don’t require a locked seatbelt and European vehicles typically don’t have lockable (ALR) seat belts.”
She looks at me. I say, “Oh, I’m a car seat technician.”
I then offered to go into the carpark with her and fix up the car seat (super nerd that I am; what do other people do on their child-free holidays?) I went in with her and I met her husband and her little one-year old daughter and I showed them how to tighten the car seat; how to position yourself behind the car seat and push your hips into the car seat diagonally toward the seat bite, and then rock the car seat from side to side while you’re tightening the seat belt. Then she tested the seat belt and she was amazed. She couldn’t believe how the car seats didn’t move - even a little bit.
“If you weren’t here, I would’ve gone and tried to use the car seat forward-facing!”.
Because the car seat had an in-built lock-off mechanism when it was forward-facing. It didn’t have that same mechanism for the rear-facing configuration, so they thought they would have to put it forward-facing, and they really didn’t want to - they were aiming for extended rear-facing, which is fantastic.