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The Right Way to Break a Car Window in an Emergency

by Staff
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Photo: Friedemann Vogel / Staff (Getty Images)

If you’re anything like me, your overriding goal in life is to not have a hilarious obituary. This is why I’ve decided to never ride a rollercoaster, board a hot air balloon, or go skydiving—I don’t want my last thoughts to be along the lines of why I thought jumping out of a plane was a good idea.

But just avoiding the most obvious deathtrap situations doesn’t mean you won’t someday find yourself seconds away from the Big Sleep. For example, your car is a death trap. About 400 people drown inside vehicles every year, because water applies an incredible amount of force against your car windows and doors, making them nearly impossible to open until the pressure equalizes. And I hate to tell you this, but by the time the pressure has equalized, your car is full of water and you have drowned.

Knowing how to break your car windows in an emergency is a necessity of modern life. And drowning while trapped in your car is just one reason you should know how to do it—if someone has suffered a medical emergency inside a locked car, or if a child or pet is trapped inside a hot car, being able to break that window safely and quickly might save lives. Here’s the right way to do it.

Know your type of glass

In the movies, breaking a car side window looks really easy. And this is one of those times when the movies aren’t far off—the tempered glass traditionally used in the side windows of most vehicles does shatter easily, with the right application of force. But the U.S. Department of Transportation changed its guidelines a few years ago, noting that a lot of folks were being ejected from their cars through side windows in certain types of collisions. As a result, manufacturers began switching from traditional tempered glass to laminated glass (which is what front windshields have been made from for a while). And laminated glass is much, much harder to break. In fact, it’s almost impossible. It just keeps cracking.

So the first thing you should do when contemplating the many ways you might die while trapped in your car is to find out what kind of glass your car has. Note that the rear side windows may still be made of tempered glass, even if the front ones are laminated. That’s crucial info, because you might still be able to escape your car in seconds if you can just shatter those windows.

Carry the right tools

Once you know the glass you’re dealing with, having the right tools on hand is essential:

  • For tempered glass, just about any blunt object will shatter the window: a hammer, a tire iron, a rock. Having a standard safety hammer with a built-in seatbelt cutter will make shattering the window and escaping the car pretty simple. However, hammers have one big drawback: They don’t work well underwater, so if your car is submerged you’ll be what scientists call shit out of luck. A better choice is something you don’t have to swing, like a spring-loaded glass breaker, a center punch, or even this crazy card-shaped device. Be sure to keep the tool in the glove compartment or somewhere else where you’ll be able to reach it quickly in an emergency.
  • For laminated glass, you’ll need a different tool. Laminated glass is tough stuff. Hammers—of any kind—simply won’t work fast enough in an emergency situation. A traditional glass-breaking tool may crack the laminated glass enough for you to kick or push the glass out and escape the vehicle, but the most effective tool for laminated glass is something called a windshield cutter, which is a battery-powered saw that can slice through the glass in seconds. This is a bit more complex than just swinging a hammer or using a spring-loaded glass breaker, but it’s the only option when you need to remove a car’s side window quickly.

However, hammers and blunt objects probably won’t work underwater—if your car windows are made of laminate glass and your car is submerged, you’ll need an alternative escape plan. Your best bet might be to move to where the air pocket trapped in your car is largest and wait until the car is fully submerged. At that point the pressure will have equalized and you should be able to open the door or roll down the windows.

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