Forget a glass breaker—this is the must-have automotive safety accessory

Jack Baruth

(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article linked to the wrong item — jb)

I once trekked through the Sinai desert with five Swedish peacekeepers and a newly married couple from Long Island. The peacekeepers were prepared for every eventuality, from a blister to radiation sickness. The New Yorkers were prepared, too—prepared to whine. And whine they did. If not for Nordic sjong frois, the couple’s constang kvetching would have been fatal. When I asked them what they kept in their car for emergencies, they had a simple answer: Kleenex. Coronavirus or not, that’s not my choice for The One Car Safety Accessory To Rule Them All.

Nor is it a glass breaker. No question: tactical pens and knives with glass breaking ends can be a lifesaving tool—in three basic scenarios. When you need to extricate a person or pet from a locked car that’s turned into a death trap. When your car is sinking underwater. When you’re trapped in a car that’s on fire, the door won’t open and the window won’t roll down. What are the odds?

Aquatics Safety and Water Rescue Consultant Gerald Dworkin estimates that between 1200 to 1500 vehicles go for a swim each year. He reckons 0.0273 percent of these unintentionally aquatic automobiles submerse. Mr. Dworkin reports drowning as a contributing factor – not necessarily the cause of death – in 0.0069% of all car crashes. You’re roughly a thousand times less likely to drown in a car than die falling down stairs (.06 percent).

Would a glass breaker have saved some of those poor folks who became statistical anomalies? Maybe. A little knowledge may have been just as helpful: electric car windows operate in water for a few minutes. If your vehicle is sinking underwater, lower the window, let the water in, then exfiltrate.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, crashes light-up vehicles in three percent of all accidents. Applying that to 2015 stats, 0.0949 percent of car crashes got toasty. A car fire was a contributing factor—but not the coup de grace—in 0.66 percent of fatal car crashes and 0.0051 percent of all crashes. How many of those victims would have lived if they’d had a glass breaker? A small percentage of a small percentage.

There’s another way of looking at these terrifying possibilities: they’re binary. Either you will end up in the drink a la Mary Jo Kopechne or facing old school F1 immolation, or you won’t. If you do, a glass breaker would be a godsend. And an excellent opportunity to turn to your formerly eye-rolling partner and shout “Don’t you ever call me paranoid again!”

How many people do you know whose car went underwater or caught fire? Including yourself, how many people do you know who’ve been in a serious car accident? How many serious car accidents have you come across? Plenty. What can you do in terms of rendering first aid for victims before professional help arrives? Not much. But there is something you might need to do, that you can and should do, that’s best done with a proper tool: stop someone from bleeding to death.

A person bleeding profusely will die from blood loss in roughly five minutes. If a major artery is cut or lacerated, the victim may bleed out in just two to three minutes. If the blood loss is due to an internal injury, there’s nothing an average person can do to stop it. If the blood is leaving the auto accident victim via their neck or torso, grab a piece of material and apply pressure. Press down hard and pray the victim gets to the hospital before they shuffle off this mortal coil.

If an arm or leg accounts for major blood loss, a properly applied tourniquet will save their—or you own—life. In that case, grab your tourniquet and get to work. You have a tourniquet in your glove box, right? Or do you plan on improvising MacGyver-style with your belt, shoelace or ripped T-shirt—and deploy it within that five minute window? Good luck with that.

The so-called CATS tourniquet is the one automotive accessory you should always have on board (available here). It’s small, simple and easy to use, with a built-in windlass (tightening stick). While you should practice using it, the methodology is pretty obvious. Put the limb inside the loop, secure the strap, tighten the windless. Twist the sh*t out of it (veins and arteries run along the bone). If the patient is screaming you’re doing something right. As in saving their life.

Do I have to warn readers against using a tourniquet on someone’s neck to staunch a bleeding head wound? God I hope not. But I do advise y’all to apply a tourniquet several inches above a heavily bleeding arm or leg; veins and arteries retract when severed. Also, don’t worry that the victim will lose their limb. Generally speaking, permanent nerve, muscle and blood vessel damage occurs after two hours. Balance that risk against the Brits’ experience in Afghanistan: “The effectiveness of prehospital application was in the 88.8 – 98.7 percent range, with tourniquet application durations of 48 – 103.2 minutes.”

It’s a good idea to have a full first aid kit in your car and know how to use it. There’s nothing wrong with carrying a glass breaker, fire extinguisher, space blanket and water. But if you can’t be bothered, be bothered to carry a tourniquet.

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