Warning: Vehicle Escape Tools Won't Always Work

New AAA research finds vehicle escape tools effective in breaking tempered side windows, but not laminated ones.

Traffic Safety

DENVER (July 17, 2019) – If you're a regular driver, you'll want easy access to a vehicle escape tool – a device that can cut your seat belt and shatter your side windows in the event you're trapped in your car after a crash. But, be forewarned: Per new research from AAA, while most vehicle escape tools will break tempered side windows, they are unable to penetrate laminated glass. That's a problem, in part, because an increasing number of new cars – in fact, one in three 2018 vehicle models – have laminated side windows featuring nearly unbreakable glass designed to lessen the chance of occupant ejection during a collision. 

In its latest study, AAA examined a selection of commonly available vehicle escape tools. Of the six tools selected (three spring-loaded and three hammer-style), AAA researchers found that only four were able to shatter tempered glass, and  none were able to break through laminated glass – which stayed intact even after being cracked. 

"While more and more cars now come equipped with laminated side windows, most still have at least one window made of tempered glass," said AAA Colorado spokesman Skyler McKinley. "Per our research, drivers should know what type of side windows they have to ensure they don't waste precious seconds attempting to break glass that just won't shatter no matter what."

Drivers can determine the type of glass installed on their vehicle by first checking for a label located in the bottom corner of the side window, which should clearly indicate whether the glass is tempered or laminated. In the event this information is not included or the label is missing, motorists should contact the vehicle manufacturer. Vehicles are often outfitted with different glass at varying locations in the car – with tempered glass for rear side windows and laminated on front side windows, for example.

The rise in laminated glass follows new federal safety standards aimed at reducing occupant ejections in high-speed collisions. In 2017, an estimated 21,400 people were partially or fully ejected during a crash, resulting in 11,200 injuries and 5,053 deaths. Laminated glass substantially reduces the risk of occupant ejection, but it carries with it new safety concerns in instances where vehicles catch fire or become partially or fully submerged in water. 

Being prepared in an emergency can greatly improve the chances of survival, especially if drivers and their passengers have become trapped in a vehicle. AAA strongly recommends drivers do the following:

Prepare Ahead of Time

  • Memorize the type of glass the vehicle windows are made of – tempered or laminated. If the car has at least one tempered window, this will be the best point of exit in an emergency. Remember, standard escape tools will not break laminated glass. 
  • Keep an escape tool in the car that the driver is comfortable using, has previously tested, and is easy to access following a collision. To make sure a vehicle escape tool is working properly, test it ahead of time on a softer surface such as a piece of soft wood. The tool works if the tip impacts the surface, leaving a small indent in the material. Per AAA research, neither your cell phone nor headrest can break a tempered side window, and therefore cannot be counted on in place of a vehicle escape tool.
  • Plan an exit strategy in advance and communicate it to everyone in the car. This will help avoid confusion in an emergency, which could increase the time it takes to exit the vehicle. Have a backup plan in case an escape tool cannot be used or does not work.

If trapped in a vehicle, remember there is a S-U-R-E way out:

  • Stay calm. While time is of the essence, work cautiously to ensure everyone safely exists the vehicle.
  • Unbuckle seat belts and check to see that everyone is ready to leave the car when it's time.
  • Roll down or break a window. Remember that if the car is sinking in water, once the window is open the water will rush into the car. If the window will not open and the car has tempered glass, use an escape tool to break a side window to escape. 
  • If a window will not open or cannot be broken because it is laminated, everyone should move to the back of the vehicle or wherever an air pocket is located. Stay with it until all of the air has left the vehicle. Once this happens, the pressure should equalize, allowing occupants to open a door and escape. 
  • Exit the vehicle quickly and move everyone to safety.
  • Call 911. While this is typically the first step in an emergency, if a vehicle has hit the water or is on fire, it is best to try to escape first. 


For testing methodology, refer to the full report by clicking here

About AAA Colorado

More than 695,000 members strong, AAA Colorado is the state’s most-trusted advocate for the safety and security of all travelers. As North America’s largest motoring and leisure travel organization, AAA provides more than 59 million members with travel, insurance, financial, and automotive-related services — as well as member-exclusive savings. For more information, visit AAA.com.