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Cool Car Gadgets and Accessories to Help You in an Emergency

Of all the gadgets on the market, here are the ones you need to keep in your car — and a couple you don’t


spinner image items you should keep in your car for emergencies
Danielle Del Plato

Cars today seem so reliable that those old jokes about breakdowns (Found On the Road Dead or Fix It Again, Tony) feel like something from a bygone era. But with the rise in extreme weather, long lists of recalls and sometimes just plain bad luck, motorists can still find themselves stuck on the road without immediate help.

“You never know if your vehicle is going to become disabled or even if you’re going to be in a traffic jam and you’re stuck there with no place to go,” says AAA’s David Bennett, senior automotive manager.

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Approximately 1 out of 3 drivers will experience a car breakdown in the U.S., according to the car software company Agero. Even worse, over 700 drivers are killed annually while trying to deal with a mechanical issue on the road. So having the right emergency gear in your car could not only save you time, it could also save your life.

Recharge your battery

One of the most common causes of breakdowns, according to the car insurance firm Geico, is a dead battery. In the past, jumping a car meant having a pair of jumper cables on hand and then finding a Good Samaritan with another vehicle to jump-start your car. But these days you can do it all on your own — in some cases, without even getting out of your vehicle — as long as you have the right tool.

Boost your battery and your phone. Rechargeable battery packs now have enough juice to kick-start a car’s 12-volt battery, with models available from several companies, including Cobra, Scosche and Noco. These portable battery jump starters are about the size of paperback book, priced around $100 and usually do double duty as battery backups for smartphones.

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Pack a gadget that leaves no chance of error. Many models, like the Scosche PowerUp 700 ($140), also include a small, built-in LED flashlight and will prevent you from incorrectly attaching the jumper clamps and doing any damage. (Make a wrong connection, and the jumper pack simply won’t power up.)

Charge your battery from inside your car. Models like the Cobra Jump Starter 1000A CPJS 1000A ($120) will hold a charge for up to a year, and it has a strobe light mode for emergencies. In inclement weather or dangerous locations, like on the side of a busy highway, you can use it to start your car without the risk of going outside, points out Connor Eberhardt, Cobra’s product manager for power and communications. Just plug it into the car’s 12-volt cigarette lighter plug. It can take several minutes to start a car this way, but it may be safer than popping the hood and standing outside.

Pump up your tires

The second most important part of your vehicle is where the rubber meets the road. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 662 roadway fatalities occurred in 2021 due to tire-related accidents. Tires can fail for a number of reasons, including underinflation and sudden punctures.

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“Twenty to 30 percent of cars nowadays do not come standard with a spare tire,” points out AAA’s Bennett. “So you may want a tire inflator or inflator kit.” These range in price from $20 to $60, depending on whether they have a built-in battery or have to be plugged into a 12-volt port. It won’t suffice if there’s significant sidewall damage to a tire, but an inflator could help you limp home or make it to a service center to get a replacement tire.

Light it up with a flashlight

A more mundane car accessory is a powerful flashlight. Aside from traditional disposable battery-powered modelss, there are several rechargeable flashlights specifically designed for the car, such as the $81 Scosche PBJF600 PowerUp 600 Torch Portable 300 Lumen Flashlight. (It also includes a jumper pack, but it’s more suitable for cars with smaller engines.)

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With our addiction to gadgets and gear, many auto experts also recommend packing a power inverter in the trunk. These devices turn the 12-volt DC power of a cigarette lighter output into a 110-volt AC outlet that you can plug, say, a laptop computer into. Some cars come with built-in inverters (you can tell if your car has one if you have a standard household power plug somewhere in your vehicle — it’s rare that a car doesn’t have one). An inverter can be handy if you are stranded and need to use a device that needs to be plugged in, such as a computer or tablet PC.

Apps that get you where you need to go

Finally, AAA’s Bennett suggests that you familiarize yourself with smartphone apps that can help you out in a pinch. Specifically, navigation and emergency service apps can be helpful. But what if you’re in a rural location that doesn’t have cell service?

If you have an iPhone 14 or 15, you can use a satellite connection to text emergency services. You must a have a clear view of the sky, but it should work anywhere in the U.S. AAA even has a satellite service for roadside assistance. Unfortunately, Android phones don’t yet offer emergency satellite texting as a standard feature.

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Don’t forget your go-bag

Car accessories for emergencies

Based on recommendations from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Red Cross and AAA, here’s what you should have in a go-bag in the back of your car:

  • Cellphone charger: Keep a variety of plugs for different phones.
  • Jumper battery pack: So it will jump-start your car when you need it, plug it in every few months to make sure it’s fully charged.
  • First-aid kit: This should include gauze, adhesive bandages and antiseptic wipes.
  • Reflectors: Old-fashioned flares will eventually burn out. In an emergency, AAA recommends spacing three or more triangle reflectors every 10 feet behind your car.
  • Blanket: Necessary if you’re stranded or if anyone becomes ill.
  • Shovel: Also include some material that can help with traction, such as nonclumping kitty litter.
  • Flashlight: Smartphones can act as mini spotlights, but they are not as powerful as a dedicated flashlight.
  • Nonperishable food, drinking water and any medicines you regularly need. Include the same for your pets.

For all the sophisticated gadgets and gear you can buy, a small tote bag with some basic essentials may still be the most important item to keep in your car. A go-bag should include a blanket, some nonperishable food, a small tool kit with wrenches and screwdrivers for making quick repairs, and water. NHTSA even suggests carrying something you may not have used in many years: a paper map, for times when smartphone and car navigation systems fail. It’s nice to see some things haven’t changed.

What you don’t need

Not all car gadgets are created equal. Some may cause more confusion than reassurance.

Diagnostic tools. One example: so-called OBD-2 readers. These gadgets plug into the On-Board Diagnostics 2 port under the dashboard of most cars and promise to interpret any error codes or dashboard engine-warning lights.

But in practice those trouble codes need additional analysis in order to understand the exact problem with the car, which requires additional diagnostic steps, AAA’s Bennett points out. In general, if you see a yellow check engine light, you have time to get to a service professional. A red check engine light means it’s time to call for a tow truck.

Window breakers. Once a common emergency gadget in cars, a window-breaking tool may no longer be of much assistance. That’s because most hammer-style tools will not shatter newer laminated glass windows, according to AAA tests. These heavier windows were developed in part to prevent people from being ejected from a car in an accident.

If you’re worried about being submerged in a car and struggling to get out, hammer-style escape tools also will not work underwater. If you can’t open the windows or doors in the water, experts recommend staying calm and waiting until the water fills the cabin and the pressure equalizes so you can open a door.

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close up of a gold car parked near the water during sunset

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Shop for a car with safety features you want. Buyers can get a free AARP Smart Driver course.

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