AAA seat belt tool

This photo provided by AAA shows a vehicle escape tool that can cut a seat belt.

New research from AAA reveals that most vehicle escape tools that are intended to quickly aid passengers trapped in vehicles are not able to penetrate a type of glass that is growing increasingly common in new vehicle models.

A growing number of new cars — about 1 in 3 in 2018, according to AAA — have laminated side windows instead of tempered side windows. Laminated windows are nearly unbreakable glass whose purpose is to prevent occupant ejection during a collision, according to AAA.

Though many escape tools were able to break tempered glass, none were able to break the laminated glass in AAA's study, and AAA urges drivers to know what type of window their vehicles have. For a list of vehicles with laminated windows, check out the bottom of AAA's report. Labels on the bottom corner of a side window should also indicate whether the glass is tempered or laminated.

“To improve safety, more vehicles are being equipped with laminated side windows, but a majority also have at least one window made of tempered glass,” said John Nielsen, managing director of Automotive Engineering and Repair for AAA. “Our research found that generally vehicle escape tools can be effective in an emergency, but only if drivers know what type of side windows they have, otherwise they could waste precious seconds trying to break glass that will not shatter.”

AAA said the increased use of laminated glass was in response to federal safety standards aimed at reducing occupant ejections in high-speed collisions. In 2017, about 21,400 people were partially or fully ejected during a crash, 11,200 were injured and 5,053 people died.

AAA said that while ejection crashes are more common, vehicle escape tools are important for crashes where a vehicle catches fire, is fully submerged in water or entraps passengers whose only route is out of a window.

In its study, AAA also tested how well certain escape tools perform against tempered glass. And while all of them failed the laminated glass test, some of them still failed to break tempered glass or could not cut the seat belt in less than 10 seconds.

AAA spring-loaded tool

Of these three spring-loaded vehicle escape tools, the ones on the left and center were able to break tempered glass. The tool on the right was unable to break the glass in one test, and it took five attempts to break the glass in another test. The center tool averaged 13.5 seconds in cutting the seat belt, while the other two were able to cut it in less than 2.5 seconds.

In testing three models of hammer-type escape tools and three models of spring-loaded tools, one tool in each category couldn't cut the seat belt in less than 10 seconds, with one spring-loaded tool taking an average of 13.5 seconds after three tests and a hammer tool taking an average of 23 seconds.

AAA hammer-type tools

Of the pictured hammer-type tools tested, only the one on the left broke tempered glass. The other two were unable to even crack the glass, and the center tool broke during the initial impact in two tests. The tool on the right took an average of 23 seconds to cut the seat belt, while the other two tools were able to cut the seat belt in 2 seconds.

In testing the tools to break tempered glass, all but one of the spring-loaded tools broke the glass on every test, and one tool failed one of the three tests. The hammer-type tools, however, mostly failed the test and in some cases couldn't even crack the window. Only one type of hammer tool of the three tested was able to break the glass in one strike.

AAA also said hammer-style escape tools are ineffective underwater.

In choosing an escape tool, AAA suggests drivers avoid tools with extra features, such as lights or chargers, since these functions don't improve the performance of the tool.

“Drivers should pick a tool they feel comfortable with and find easy to use, but most importantly they should store it somewhere that is secure and within reach following a collision,” Nielsen said in a news release.

Drivers can test their escape tools ahead of time by using a softer surface, such as a piece of soft wood. The tool works if the tip impacts the surface, leaving a small indent.

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