The vast majority of child restraint seats come with directions recommending the use of an additional device, a locking clip.
Few auto safety devices are more difficult to use or surrounded by looser federal regulations than locking clips, even though the clips are supposed to be essential to child safety.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration certifies child safety seats, but under no circumstances does it base certifications on the use of locking clips in tests.
"There is no regulatory reason to use the clip," said Barry Felrice, the associate administrator for rule making at the safety administration. "We have rule making going on right now to clarify this issue. We are not going to allow any child safety seats to require the use of locking clips to satisfy our safety standards."
But manufacturers of safety seats portray quite a different story in their seat instructions. Those instructions either "recommend" or "require" the use of locking clips.
Instructions for a Gerry Double Guard seat, for example, advise that "the clip is required" when using a three-point seat belt system. Similarly, Fisher-Price recommends the use of clips. These three-point systems are the most common type of restraint, using a sliding latch plate.
The locking clip, which is a metal bracket, is designed to ensure that a child seat can be held securely at all times. The idea is to fix the shoulder harness to the lap belt so the seat can not move out of position.
The three-point belt systems lock up only during emergencies. The clip locks up the system at all times. Asked why manufacturers recommend these clips, Felrice suggested that they may be concerned about liability issues.
The bottom line is that there are no federal standards governing the use of safety clips, according to Stephanie Tombrello, executive director of Safety Belt Safe USA, a Los Angeles organization that advocates improved auto safety.
"Perhaps (the traffic safety administration) has never put in a three-point belt system with a locking clip, but if you read the instructions, you will find that the companies that make the seats do require them," she said. "The car seat companies assume that it will be needed if you use it with a three-point system."
If the clip is not used, the seat is free to move around in normal driving because the shoulder portion of the harness is not locked. If excess slack develops, the seat can fly forward in a collision and suddenly jerk to a stop, exerting injurious force to the occupant, she said.
If the clip is used improperly, the seat can have excessive slack and fail to restrain the child. Getting all the slack out of belt with a clip is a big problem, as anybody who has attempted to use the clips knows.
That's because the clip typically attaches to the belt behind the child seat, which is inaccessible. In order to attach the clip, you must first loosen the belt and then somehow retighten the belt after the clip is on. It is a time-consuming and tedious task.
"We admit that it is difficult to do it," a Fisher-Price spokesman said. "But it is possible to do it. We do provide the necessary instructions and encourage people to follow them to the letter."
Another major problem is that some locking clips are poorly made and not capable of withstanding a collision if not used exactly as intended, according to Tombrello. And locking clips cannot even be used in new cars that feature a restraint system anchored to a door rather than the door post because their use would make it impossible to open the door.
"Ultimately, clips will be phased out because there is a new latch plate that has been devised," Tombrello said.
Until then, good luck.
Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but will attempt to respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.