The Basic Automotive Safety Kit: A True Lifesaver


Nicholas Miller MS, NRP

Every year, millions of motorists find themselves in a situation where they are stranded on the roadway or stuck in mud, ice, or snow. There are also times when drivers find themselves in more critical and life-threatening situations such as motor vehicle collisions, medical emergencies, and vehicle fires.

Despite the high frequency and severity of these roadside events, the vast majority of passenger vehicles are not equipped with any items to provide aid in such events. It is up to the motorist to equip their vehicle with the necessary supplies and equipment in order to provide aid when such events occur. 

Basic Automotive Safety Kit (BASK)

A Basic Automotive Safety Kit (BASK) is an essential part of a comprehensive vehicle equipment plan. A BASK can be the difference in preventing a minor issue from escalating into a major, life-threatening event.  A quality BASK will provide for:

  • Visibility and road hazard safety
  • Immediate first aid for life-threatening injuries
  • Basic extrication equipment
  • Ability to call for assistance
  • Location and navigation assistance
  • Minor vehicle repair

Visibility and Road Hazard Safety

Visibility on the roadway can mean the difference between life and death. Hundreds of motor vehicle collisions are the result of a moving vehicle striking a stalled or stopped vehicle. Hundreds of motorists and good Samaritans are killed each year when they are struck by another vehicle that did not see them. Making the motorist and the vehicle as visible as possible when stalled on the roadway is vital. 

ANSI Class II Safety Vest

A high visibility safety vest is one of the most important items in the BASK.  Federal law mandates these vests for any person working on the road. A quality safety vest should meet the ANSI/ISEA 107-2020 Type R Class II requirements. A safety vest should be available in the passenger compartment for each person that the vehicle can hold.  These vests should ideally be put on while the motorist is still in the vehicle or as soon as they exit.

Small LED Flashlight   

Each passenger should have access to a handheld LED flashlight. LEDs are preferred because of their brightness and longer battery life. This light can be used to safely see the ground at night as well as warn motorists of their presence on the road. It should be located in the passenger compartment next to the safety vest. They should be constructed out of metal to prevent breakage when accidentally dropped. It should also have a design that prevents or reduces rolling if dropped or set down. 

Large LED Flashlight with Traffic Cone

A larger flashlight is important for several reasons. The larger size allows for a brighter light that covers a larger area. It also helps to keep it from accidentally “walking off”.  A 2D or 4C flashlight fits best in the BASK.  The larger batteries also give it a significantly longer run time and allow for the attachment of a traffic cone.

The flashlight/cone combination is more effective in directing or warning traffic than a flashlight or hand signals alone. The traffic cone works in both day and night settings.  The flashlight should ideally be metal so that it will not crack in the cold if dropped. It should also have a design that prevents or reduces rolling if dropped or set down. Fluorescent orange is the ideal color for the traffic cone.

Whistle with Lanyard

Along with each safety vest, there should be a whistle with a lanyard. This should be put on at the time of donning the safety vest.  A whistle can pierce the loud traffic noise that drowns out voices and warning shouts. Three quick blasts can alert everyone that danger is rapidly approaching.

Warning Triangles  

Warning triangles are crucial warning devices that warn other drivers that a vehicle is not moving and is stranded on the road or roadside. Warning Triangles are so important that they are mandated on all commercial vehicles. 

Triangles are the best overall warning device because they work indefinitely, do not require a power source, do not have the potential to cause a fire, stay put in windy conditions up to 40 mph, work when vehicle hazard lights fail, and can be seen in snow up to several inches. Three triangles are the minimum number required. Make sure that the triangles are DOT-compliant,

  • 3 Triangles at a minimum
  • 17-22 inch sides
  • 2-3 inch width
  • Red reflective material on each side
  • Fluorescent orange color on each side
  • Weighted base rated to 40 mph winds

Take the time to practice setting up the triangles in an empty parking lot in order to be familiar with how to assemble as well as to understand where and how far apart triangles should be placed. Ten feet is approximately 3 steps and 100 feet is approximately 40 steps though the exact number will be different for each person.

On a divided highway, the triangles should be placed 10 feet from the vehicle on the traffic side, 100 feet in the middle of the vehicle, and 200 feet on the other side of the vehicle. This is a total of approximately a total distance of 70 yards and provides approximately 2-3 seconds of warning time at highway speeds.

On a two-lane highway, the first triangle is placed 100 feet in front of the vehicle on the traffic side, the second triangle is placed behind the vehicle 10 feet on the traffic side and the third triangle is placed 100 feet behind the vehicle at the center of the vehicle.  

Immediate First Aid for Life-Threatening Injuries

Tens of thousands of motorists are injured or killed each year in motor vehicle collisions and on the roadside.  Thousands more suffer medical emergencies while driving or riding in a vehicle. The ability to render first aid within the first 3 to 4 minutes is critical. 

First Aid Kit

A small general-purpose first aid kit is crucial to provide immediate life-saving first aid to the sick and injured.  The first aid kit should be able to address the most common life-threatening emergencies. The ANSI Z308.1 2021 Class A requirement is a good starting point but those standards are for first aid kits in the workplace. They are not designed for a personal or small first aid kit like the one in the BASK. The ANSI guidelines are minimal items for a workplace setting with several persons. ANSI further recommends that employers augment the kit as needed to meet their specific needs.

Most importantly, every person should get first aid training so they will have the knowledge to safely and correctly apply the treatments available in a first aid kit.

The first aid kit should be clearly marked with the ISO white cross on a green background or the Geneva Convention red cross on a white background or otherwise clearly marked for ease of identification in an emergency. ANSI recommends that the container should have multiple pouches to hold equipment securely and allow for quick identification of medical items. 

Learn more about ANSI workplace First Aid kit regulations here.

Extinguishment of Small and Incipient Fires

Fires are very real and a possible danger when on the road. Motorists must be prepared to extinguish a fire quickly so that it does not grow in size. A difference of just a couple of minutes can mean the difference between a small incipient fire that can be easily extinguished, and a large fire that requires a professional fire department to put out. 

Fire Extinguisher 

The fire extinguisher should be of a minimum size of 1A:10B:C to address most fires that may start in the vehicle or nearby. The fire extinguisher needs to be able to extinguish Class A, B, and C fires. The fire extinguisher gauge should always be checked periodically to ensure that it is still pressurized and ready for use. 

When using the fire extinguisher it is important to remember the PASS acronym to properly extinguish the fire. 

            P – Pull the pin

            A – Aim at the BASE of the fire

            S – Squeeze the trigger

            S – Sweep the extinguisher from side to side of the fire. 

These instructions are usually provided on the actual extinguisher. 

To learn more about fire extinguisher ratings and classifications visit here.

Personal Protective Equipment

The following protective clothing items will shield the driver from dirt, debris, and spewing fluids while protecting the eyes and hands from injury.

High-Visibility Work Gloves

A pair of high-visibility gloves serves two purposes.  First, the high visibility backs of the gloves, combined with the natural movement of the hands and arms will help to make the driver more visible to moving vehicles.  The palm side should be of leather or similarly durable material to protect the driver’s hands when working on the vehicle.  Consider having more than one pair for passengers.

Eye Protection

Eye protection should be worn whenever working on a vehicle and anytime the driver is out on the roadway.  Protective eyewear shields the eyes from rocks and other flying debris shot out from passing cars.  It also protects the eyes from various hot spewing vehicle fluids and even biohazard fluids when administering first aid.  Eye protection should be at a minimum ANSI/ISEA Z87.1.2020 compliant. Eye protection with anti-fog protection is preferred.  Extra pairs for passengers are also a good idea. 

Apron

An inexpensive apron is an optional item that will save the driver’s clothes from dirt, smudges, and stains should they be forced to change a tire or otherwise work on their vehicle.  This is especially valuable if the driver is wearing a uniform or dress clothes.  The apron should cover the chest as well as the waist.

Basic Extrication Equipment

The BASK should have a minimum amount of tools that allow for the emergency extrication of drivers and passengers out of the vehicle as well as the extrication of the vehicle when stuck in mud, snow, or ice.  These tools include:

Seat Belt Cutter/Window Punch

A seatbelt cutter and window punch may prove invaluable if the driver and passengers must exit the vehicle in an emergency situation and cannot get the door or window to open. It is best to “try before you pry” and attempt to open the door or window or seatbelt before cutting or punching. 

Ideally, this tool should be in the center console in order to be easily reached by most people. It can also be secured to the lid or side of the console with high-heat Velcro or high-heat tape that is made to withstand the temperatures of a vehicle in the summer months. There are also times when the vehicle itself may be stuck in mud, ice, or snow.

Folding Shovel

A small shovel that can fold to fit into the BASK container is useful to dig the car out of snow and mud.  It can also be used to chip traction lines in the ice for the tires to grip.  The shovel should be high quality and made of metal.  Ideally, the shovel can be adjusted 90 degrees to a pickaxe style to aid in quickly scooping snow out from around the tires. 

Tow Strap with Shackle

A quality, heavy-duty tow strap, and shackle will prove invaluable if a vehicle is stuck in mud, ice, or snow and a tow truck is not available.  The tow strap and shackle should be a minimum of 20 feet; a minimum load limit of 4667 pounds; and a minimum break strength of 14000 lbs.  The ends of the strap should have a large loop stitched on each end.  The shackle should be rated to a minimum of 10,000 pounds.  Keep the strap load limits written with the strap. 

Drivers should have the knowledge and training to safely pull out of a vehicle before attempting.  Improper attempts can result in serious injury or death if the limits are exceeded or the strap is improperly secured.  Make sure all persons are at a safe distance from the strap to avoid being struck should the strap suddenly break. 

Traction Boards

Traction boards are valuable pieces of equipment to assist in getting a stuck vehicle out of mud or ice.  They are placed under the drivetrain wheel and allow traction for the vehicle to drive over.  Inexpensive boards are made of plastic work but can become brittle and break when used in cold environments.  However, their significantly lower cost over higher quality boards may justify their purchase and periodic replacement after use.  Choose a size that can easily fit in the trunk of a sedan. 

Roadside Assistance Membership

There are times when a driver will need professional assistance or a tow truck.  A roadside assistance membership is a valuable tool that can provide such assistance for an annual fee.  Choose a professional service that performs background checks on its providers and is adequately trained in automotive safety operations.  Choose a service package that provides towing for a minimum of 75 miles before incurring any additional fees.  This will allow the vehicle to be towed to a preferred automotive shop if stranded locally, and to an automotive shop if stranded remotely.  A copy of the membership card with the phone number should be kept on the person and another copy can be kept in the BASK.

Emergency Cash

Credit cards and ATM cards do not work when there is no power and sometimes businesses do not accept credit or checks.  Drivers would be wise to keep enough emergency cash on hand to fill up the car with a tank of gas, buy a meal or two, and be able to stay in a hotel overnight. Ideally, this would be kept either on the driver in a location separate from their primary cash storage, or can also be kept in the BASK. 

The Ability to Call For Assistance

The importance of being able to call for police, fire, EMS, or roadside assistance cannot be understated. The following items can prove invaluable when help is needed. 

Cellular Phone with Service

Today, nearly everyone has a cell phone on his or her person. Make sure the phone has all-important numbers programmed into the phone. These would include the number of roadside assistance and the state highway patrol. Consider having an extra phone just for the vehicle or a service such as OnStar that can provide emergency assistance dispatching or cellular service.   

Power Bank

For those times when a driver is stranded and without power, a power bank may be necessary to recharge cellular phones.  The power bank should be large enough to recharge the phone several times and ideally small enough to put in a center console or glove box. Ideally, the power bank can be recharged by direct power in a building or by solar panels when stranded for a prolonged period of time.  Inspect regularly to make sure it is fully charged and recharge immediately after each use. 

Location and Navigation Assistance

Knowing one’s location does not seem like a safety issue…until one finds themselves lost in a dangerous area or stuck in the middle of nowhere.  The following items will help to ensure that drivers know exactly where they are, and how to get to their destination safely.

Automobile Navigation Program

In the 21st century, nearly everyone has some form of computer-based navigation device. Originally driven by devices utilizing GPS, most applications now use cell phone towers to locate the vehicle in a very similar manner. A smartphone or similar device with an application, such as Waze, is a useful addition when driving. The best applications are designed specifically for automobile use and can track the vehicle’s location in real time. They can also identify various road hazards along the plotted journey, and allow the driver to enter various hazards they encounter in real time. These programs can also plot the best route for the journey, alternate routes if necessary, and provide both audio and visual directions. 

The driver can track their progress using the smartphone screen or the computer screen in their vehicle. If using the smartphone or device screen, the driver must be sure to mount it in a location where it can be quickly and easily seen with minimal distraction from the road and does not impair the driver’s view.

Maps and Map Books  

Maps and map books have been relegated to a secondary backup role but are still invaluable when the devices go down due to cell tower outages, power failures or simply being broken. They are also useful when trying to understand the bigger picture of a driver’s location in context with the nearby area. 

A good BASK should have a national road atlas and a detailed map book of the greater local area. Map books are easier to read while seated in the car than traditional maps. Maps and map books should be updated every 2-3 years. They should be placed in a protective case to avoid damage and are best located in the rear seat pocket.

Minor Vehicle Repair

There are times when a vehicle becomes disabled and there is no choice but to call a tow truck.  However, if the issue is minor, it is very possible the vehicle can be repaired either definitively or at least to a point that will allow the vehicle to be driven to an automotive repair shop.

Basic Automotive Tools 

A small tool kit with the minimum tools needed to make small repairs should be in every BASK. Many tool companies make small kits with these tools in place. At a minimum, the BASK toolkit should include the following tools:

  • 6-inch adjustable crescent wrench
  • 3/8 inch drive reversible ratchet
  • 5/8 inch spark plug socket for 3/8 inch drive ratchet
  • 13/16 inch spark plug socket for 3/8 inch drive ratchet
  • Standard 3/8 inch six point SAE sockets in 3/8, 7/16, and 9/16 inches
  • Metric 3/8 inch six-point SAE sockets in 10, 11, 12, and 14 mm
  • 5-inch curved vice grips or locking jaw pliers
  • 10-50 psi rated tire gauge
  • Magnetic screwdriver handle
  • Screwdriver bits with various Phillips, standard, hex, and other driver styles
  • Open-end wrenches of various standard and metric sizes
  • Allen wrenches or hex keys of various sizes
  • Box cutter with a retractable blade and spare blades in the handle

Long Stem Funnel with Rag

A funnel with a long stem and appropriate-sized diameter is necessary when filling vehicle fluids.  It is especially useful when filling an automobile gas tank from a portable gasoline container. The rag is useful to keep the funnel clean. If the rag is red, it can also be used to mark objects that stick out of the vehicle more than 5 feet. 

Battery Jumper Cables

Jumper cables are invaluable when the vehicle battery goes dead. It is important to get the right thickness cables for the battery of the vehicle. Length varies from 8-20 feet. The right length is a balance between desired reach and the size of the BASK container. 

Minor Repair Kit

In order to make minor repairs, it is a good idea to have the following items in the BASK:

  • Tire puncture repair kit
  • Electrical Tape
  • Fuses of assorted sizes and assorted amperages
  • Fuses that are used by the vehicle
  • Assorted-size hose clamps
  • Wire or hanging strap
  • Zip ties

LED Headlamp

An LED headlamp will prove invaluable if one has to work alone or otherwise needs to free up their hands. The headlamp should have various intensity settings and a wide field of view mode. Headlamps with a red light option to protect night vision are preferred.

The BASK Container

Nearly all of the equipment in the Basic Automotive Safety Kit can easily fit inside a large toolbox or a similar-sized box.  Some items, such as the ANSI Class II vests, seatbelt cutter, and maps should be located in the passenger compartment.  The container should have a secure lid.  It should be colored and labeled to make it as easy to identify as possible for a person under stress.  

The color should stand out and be marked with reflective tape. The BASK container should be clearly marked on all sides and the top with color-coded reflective labels denoting the presence of a fire extinguisher and a first aid kit. The reflective tape will also make the box usable in a similar manner as a warning triangle if needed or at a minimum make it more visible to cars on the roadway. 

A toolbox has the additional advantage of a top shelf. This should be used only for critical emergency equipment such as the fire extinguisher, first aid kit, and large flashlight with a traffic cone. The shelf may need to be modified slightly to allow the first aid kit to fit, as well as to secure the fire extinguisher from movement. This can be accomplished easily with a box cutter to remove the necessary parts of the shelf.

As a general rule, the more important and more frequently an item may be used, the higher up in the box it goes.  The least used items should be on the bottom.

The kit should be further subdivided into several mini kits. This will keep similar items together, and make the identification, loading, unloading, and deployment of the BASK items smooth and efficient.  Consider color-coding the mini kits for additional ease of identification. 

BASK Equipment Maintenance

Last but not least, the BASK should be opened and all the safety equipment checked a minimum of twice annually. The following inspections should be made:

  • Make sure all items are present. Consider placing a laminated list in the BASK to review for completeness
  • Test all components and make sure they still work properly.
  • Check all batteries in flashlights and other equipment to make sure they are fully charged and in good condition. 
  • Make sure the fire extinguisher is fully charged. The needle on the gauge should be in the green.
  • The first Aid Kit has all supplies and equipment. Consider keeping a laminated list of First Aid equipment in the BASK for review. ANSI recommends it be inspected monthly or after each use.
  • Replace any expired items, such as first aid medications or batteries
  • Inspect the tow strap and shackle for any cuts, tears, or defects. Replace if any are found. Make sure the load limits for each are written and placed in the tow strap container.
  • Inspect the spare/temporary tire. Make sure it is in good working order and properly inflated. If a tire was not provided with the vehicle, make sure the air compressor works and the tire leak sealant can is in working condition. 
  • Make sure the vehicle still has the jack, lug wrench, and special socket to take off the security lug nut. 
  • If an item is used, it should be replaced or recharged as soon as practical. 

A Basic Automotive Safety Kit is a critical piece of a comprehensive vehicle equipment plan.  The BASK will aid the driver considerably in addressing the vast majority of major and minor emergencies that may occur on the road. An investment in a well-stocked, well-maintained BASK takes up little room in the trunk and provides peace of mind for the driver, passengers, and loved ones.    

Nicholas Miller MS, NRP

Nick Miller is a veteran paramedic and nationally recognized educator. He is a national conference speaker, author, and recipient of the JEMS EMS 10 international award for innovation. Nick has traveled the country training elite military groups, including the US Air Force SERE medical group (IDMT’s) , the US Navy SEAL Special Operations Tactical Paramedics (SOT-P), and US Air Force Pararescuemen (PJs). He has provided subject-matter expertise to numerous governmental agencies and paramedic education programs. Nick holds a Master of Science Degree in Safety, Security and Emergency Management from Eastern Kentucky University and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Health and Wellness from the University of Minnesota.

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