Unlike tempered glass, vehicle escape tools can’t break the stronger material

BOISE – (July 16, 2019) – Due to a revision in the federal motor vehicle safety standards, an increasing number of late-model vehicles are now equipped with side windows made out of laminated glass, a stronger material that is more commonly used in windshields.

But unlike the tempered glass that is normally used in side windows and designed to break under certain conditions, laminated glass is nearly impossible to break, even with a specialized escape tool, according to new tests conducted by AAA.

That’s a concern, AAA says, because if drivers and passengers can’t smash out a window in an emergency, they could become trapped in their cars, which would be especially dangerous if the vehicle were fully or partially submerged or on fire.  In 2017, that scenario took place in nearly 21,000 crashes, resulting in 1,800 deaths.

Laminated glass, which is made by inserting clear plastic panels between panes of glass during the manufacturing process, offers a quieter ride, more protection against theft and vandalism, and a greater chance of keeping people in the vehicle cockpit after a rollover.  But because it’s harder to break into a vehicle with laminated glass, it’s also harder to break out.

“A rollover accident is far more likely to occur than one that involves water or a fire, so it makes sense to upgrade to the stronger material in many cases,” says AAA Idaho public affairs director Matthew Conde.  “But it’s an awareness thing.  Vehicle owners need to know what kind of glass they have in order to do the right thing in different situations.”

Glass specifications can be found in the bottom corner of the side window, where the word “TEMPERED” or “LAMINATED” will appear.  Approximately 33 percent of 2018 models have laminated side windows installed in the front, but only four percent had them in the back as well.  In an emergency, it’s important to focus primarily on breaking any tempered glass in the vehicle.

AAA tested six vehicle escape tools on tempered and laminated glass – three hammer-style tools, and three spring-loaded tools.  All three spring-loaded and one hammer-style device were able to break the tempered glass. None were able to break the laminated glass, even after it cracked.  Items that drivers might use in a pinch, such as a cell-phone or car seat headrest, were ineffective.

“Drivers need to keep a good escape tool within easy reach in their vehicles,” Conde said.  “In an emergency, it’s best not to have to improvise.”

A hammer-style escape tool may be more difficult to use as water enters the vehicle, but a spring-loaded tool is very simple to use.  When it’s pressed against the corner of the glass, a small pin will pop out to break the glass.  A good escape tool also has a cutting device to free everyone from their seat belts.

Drivers can test their spring-loaded escape tools by pressing them against a soft piece of wood, such as pine.  Once the pin deploys, you should be able to find a small indentation in the wood that indicates that the tool is working properly.  In a water emergency, always unbuckle all occupants before breaking the glass.

Vehicle occupants should always have a backup plan in case an escape tool cannot be used or doesn’t work.  This should include having everyone unbuckle their seat belts, and if possible, roll down a window to exit the vehicle.

In the event that a vehicle is submerged in water and the windows can’t be opened, safety officials recommend moving to wherever an air pocket is present (usually toward the back of the vehicle) and staying with it until all of the air has left the vehicle.  Once that happens, the pressure should equalize, allowing occupants to open a door and escape.

The acronym SURE can help people make a plan for safely exiting a vehicle:

  • Stay calm.  It’s a high-stress situation, but focus on working quickly and cautiously.
  • Unbuckle seat belts.  Make sure everyone is ready to leave the car when it’s time.
  • Roll down or break windows (if tempered glass).  If the vehicle is sinking in water, the water will rush in at a much faster rate once the window is broken.  Note: for laminated glass, open the doors once the pressure has equalized enough to do so
  • Exit the vehicle quickly and move everyone to safety.

Normally, drivers should call 911 right away, but it may be necessary to escape the vehicle first in some situations.

“By knowing whether or not you have laminated windows, as well as the location of any tempered windows, you can save precious time and energy as you execute your escape plan,” Conde said.  “And that can make all the difference.”