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Signaling Considerations for Your Vehicle Emergency Kit

By Bryan Black

Vehicle Signaling Tips

Lately, I’ve really been diligent about re-evaluating the emergency equipment I store in my vehicle. While that information is definitely coming in a future article, one of the things I’ve recently contemplated is what kind of emergency signaling to carry. More specifically, emergency signaling devices to alert oncoming traffic that I have an emergency.

While there’s certainly no shortage of options, those options also took some consideration to narrow down. Let’s take a look at some of the pros & cons I’ve found, with what’s available on the market and what I based my decision on. I will state that this is entirely my opinion and what I’ve found to be the best option, may not be the best for you.


Right off the bat, I knew I didn’t want anything that would rely on a battery to operate. Batteries die and while I feel like I have a pretty good system for keeping emergency equipment up to date, I really don’t want to be dependent on batteries. That takes strobes and any kind of battery powered lighting off the list. Strobes can be extremely effective, but also are outside of the norm of what drivers would expect to encounter on a roadway. A bright strobe flashing on the side of the road might be more of a distraction than a device that would make them move over a lane.

Some other considerations on strobes and battery powered lighting, are that they’re also electronic devices. We all know how Mr. Murphy likes to mess with electronics, it’s one of his hobbies. Electronic signaling is also a more expensive option and you’ll more than likely want to retrieve them after the emergency is over; this in itself can be dangerous. You’re also out that money if a driver happens to run one over.

Another requirement I had, is that whatever device I used, needed to be seen both in the day and the night. Reflective devices were the next thing I considered. While highly visible at night with reflection from a light source, they’re not as visible during the day as they are at night. Some reflective devices I’ve seen, like reflective road triangles, are prone to falling over in high winds. The bright orange or red triangle is fairly visible during the day though.


This brings us to one of my favorites, chemlights. While these are great at night, they aren’t as good for daytime use. Having a few around in a vehicle emergency kit can’t hurt, as they’re great for an emergency lighting source. Placing them on the side of the road to alert drivers may not be as effective as other options. Chemlights also have a shelf life, but I’ve found they still work well after the expiration date.

Flags are another choice for emergency signals, but I consider these to be a supplement and wouldn’t want this as the only option. Even with a highly visible marker panel, like the VS-17 or an MPIL, there’s a chance a driver wouldn’t see it until they’re close. These are also limited to a daytime emergency signal, unless combined with a reflective device. Again, we’re back to the notes above on reflective devices.


The ultimate option in my book is road flares. Flares are a universal roadside emergency signal and there’s no mistaking a few road flares every few feet leading to a roadside emergency. They burn bright during the day and especially at night. While you wouldn’t necessarily want to use one to light up a trunk at night, they do make fantastic emergency fire starters. This alone makes them a great dual purpose device and a supplement to a vehicle emergency/survival kit.

Activating a road flare is accomplished with a simple strike cap, much like a gigantic match. Depending on the length, these can burn from 5 minutes to 30 minutes and don’t require retrieval from the roadside. They’ll eventually burn themselves out. I’d also like to bring your attention to a fantastic 2005 study (link to PDF) done by Penn State Transportation Research. The study analyzes the effectiveness of Orion Signals Emergency Road Flares in enhancing the “safety zone,” or the area which is created by the presence of safety devices.

I opted for Orion Signal 30 Minute Road Flares with an integrated wire stand to prop them up on the roadway when deployed. It’s somewhat thin wire, but even if the flare did fall, I feel they would still be just as effective.

I’ve come across flares being utilized on the ground and it certainly didn’t lessen their effectiveness. I’m currently keeping six of them in my vehicle, as well as in Kelly’s car. I truly feel emergency signaling devices are an important part of a vehicle emergency kit.

Your Thoughts?

I’d like to hear from you, what do you carry for an emergency signaling device in your vehicle. If you don’t carry anything, what do you consider to be effective? Please don’t just say an open hood!

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  • Chad Haag

    I just read your article and wanted to throw my 2 cents in and agree with you on road flares. I’ve been the victim of a recent accident that has left my Jeep in the “totaled” yard. Still waiting on the insurance to buy a new one. One thing for sure, I will be stocking on road flares. But however, stopped on the side of a major highway, with my stock hazard lights on and 4 witnesses claiming they can see it a mile away on a clear night, there’s still the inevitable of the distracted driver not paying attention (strobe lights or road flares just won’t attract their attention in this case). Officially in the police report, he didn’t realize what had happened, only texting or falling asleep at the wheel at 11pm comes to mind.

    • John Turner

      As a former Highway Patrol officer I can tell you numerous stories of how people completely ignore every attention getting device out there. Even if we all use the best precautions, have the best flare and triangle pattern and use a safety vest with lights flashing someone will either not be paying enough attention or be so drunk they will be drawn to the lights. Of course all I have is my own anecdotal evidence to draw from. The best thing any of us can do is use our own due diligence along with the brightest device we have at hand. I still carry at least 9 flares/fuses in my car (1 will burn for 20 minutes and a pattern of 3 will last 1 hour), and I have a full box in my garage.

      One other great use for flares… they can start a camp fire with the wetest or greenest of wood. Need a signal fire? Stranded and need to get warm? Yah that fire-starter key fob is awesome but nothing beats that 5000 degree roadflare for starting that sopping wet log on fire!

    • I had no idea that this was such a problem… I need to get some flares right away because I’m often stopping and using flashers. Sounds like a great tool for winter camping as well.

  • I keep a handful of 30min road flares in my truck as well. Flares specifically seem to almost be universally known to drivers as a hazard warning. I agree that if I saw a blinking LED strobe it might not immediately ‘register’ with me and by then it could be too late. And of course flares can be used to start a fire as mentioned, whether in an emergency or if you’re just feeling lazy, LOL. When it comes to survival/emergency tools, it is all about dual purpose.

  • Jason Dellinger

    I must respectfully disagree. I HATE road flares. It’s bad enough that must I concern myself with the issue that’s causing my vehicle to be on the side of the road, but now I must also be aware and responsible for an array of very hot and intense signal fires all around my vehicle. If placed improperly, they can impede access to the vehicle for a tow truck, first responder, etc and they are dangerous to move/handle after they have been ignited. It’s never a good idea to park a tow truck or assist vehicle on top of a lit road flare.

    The fact that they are great emergency fire starters are what makes them dangerous in that they can be unintentional fire starters if placed near flammable fuels/fluids or accidentally knocked off the road and onto the shoulder.

    My personal signalling kit includes 4 cheap reflective safety vests, a handful of zip ties (for attaching a couple of vests to the vehicle) and a half-dozen chemlights in high and regular intensity. I have a reflective vest for myself and an assistant as well as two vests that I attach to the vehicle like a flag. As vehicles pass by, the flags wave which give color (blaze orange or lime green), movement, and reflectivity. I can attach the chemlights to the vehicle near my work area for illumination (use hobby suction cups with wire hooks) or wear them around my neck either on my chest or back, which you can’t do with a flare. I can also place them on the road in the same manner as a flare without worry if they get accidentally knocked to the curb.

    The primary goal for roadside emergencies is to make sure that YOU are visible in addition to your vehicle (if you’re outside the vehicle) and you want to make sure that your signaling devices accomplish both missions effectively without creating hazards of their own.

    Just my two cents and that’s not to say that flares don’t have a place in certain circumstances. However, my opinion is that they should be avoided for common roadside emergency signaling.

  • I use to love chem lights, but found that they go bad and then there is only one way to check them. I like triangles, flares, and my surefire. I know you said no batteries but its been my experience that my surefire is more dependable then chem lights.

    Share an old cop trick with everyone, when you are walking around your vehicle at night turn your flashlight on and stick it facing up in your pocket. It will help people see you when you aren’t paying attention. Most cops use to put the light in their back pockets.

  • A. Nguyen

    For a long time, my father, as a supplement to the road flares and reflective triangles, had a unique car sun shade. It was relatively cheap and made of corrugated cardboard, but one side had a pretty beach scene with palm trees and the other side read “EMERGENCY CALL 911.” As nice as the other signaling methods are, they typically only redirect traffic. If you are in a true bind and required assistance (and without cell phone, like back in the 90s when we had this), it may get a good Samaritan to come and help.
    But as for what I currently carry in my car, I have a safety reflective vest (as mentioned by other comment-ers, is a good flag and keeps cars from hitting you), a set of reflective triangles, and some road flares. In addition, I always carry a high-output flashlight in the car and on my person, if I needed to flag someone down in the dark. I would like to get some Chemlights but just haven’t gotten around to getting some.

  • john

    If you have an old disposable cell phone with a 12 volt charger, leave it in your vehicle, it can be used to make a 911 call even if it has no minutes.

  • I have to agree with Jason. Espesially out here in Az where we are dryer than the runner up prom queen. Each year we have brush fires from disabled vehicles pulling too far off the road, most are contained quick, others destroy quite a bit of land.

    Even with that, I still use road flares. I just make sure to put small rocks on either side (talking thumb nail sized if that) to keep them from rolling from the traffic driving by. I learned that trick while working accident scenes that would last all day/night.

  • Matt

    As I currently reside overseas (in Germany) I can’t understate the road triangles. Not only are they required equipment to carry in your vehicle, they are universally recognized. I would argue that they are just as recognized as flares, and looking for something that doesn’t take batteries or create a fire hazard, the triangle is your best bet. I also want to echo the others that have thrown in their two cents — put some reflective vests in your ride. They are cheap to purchase. At a minimum, one for every family member or number of total passengers you can carry. When you’ve been forced to the side of the road, having everyone in your party put on a reflective vest only enhances the visibility of your presence, and keeps the other drivers aware of those that are moving around the vehicle. These are also required equipment over here in Europe. I personally also carry cone flashlights that have stands and can be used as a ‘road flare’ (here again, they take batteries, and I have two packs of brand new ones ready to go), but this is a supplement and not a stand-alone. If you really want some kit that can be stored and forgotten until it’s needed, you have to look past anything that has any kind of shelf life, and this would include road flares. Triangles never go bad.

  • Allwet

    Triangles and road flares, all side doors and the rear cargo door inner edges have reflective hazard tape. I do not like in fire hazard area, usually I get off the shoulder entirely(running on 35’s, so exhaust is high enough to USUALLY not be a contact fire hazard)- no this is not always possible , but then these days , a mechanical or tire failure is not going to “all stop you” immediately-think about where can put yourself that will get you out of the line of fire so to speak. I do not always have the “warchest” with me( I don’t drag a winch or heavy recovery gear everywhere-only if I will be passing through or entering an area where it would be a practical resource-otherwise its a wire come-along and nylon rope) I apply a little applied tool these days called common sense. Minimizing the danger of road side exposure is critical these days- the main purpose of the roadside signal devices is increased visibility-but they are not dumbproof. As illustrated by the jeep episode-which is why I put an emphasis on appropriate location when you have to “pull over”. I see many people changing a tire 2′ off the highways on the shoulder- or stopping for whatever reason. If you do have to do this because of environmental restrictions encountered-pay just as much attention to your exposure as you do to safety signals-kinda like the difference between concealment , and cover. This went a little outside the signal issue-but too many individuals these days rely on safety devices to keep them “safe” , and that is not their function. So there’s another thread right there….and I like that panel for the spare tire on the FJ, I drive a black one-so its a really good point.
    Have a good one-

  • Werner

    Bryan, while you are against depending on warning devices running on batteries, I have found that these work very well for me. Flares and such are not something I wanna carry on my motorbike and these strobes are strong enough to withstand being run over by a truck. They can be set to different cycles and blink patterns.
    Unfortunately the website is in Dutch, but running it through Google should yield a sufficient translation.
    Specs: • 360° extra bright light from 16 LEDs.
    • Red / orange leds.
    • Visible up to 15 km (approx 9.3 Miles).
    • Extra strong, waterproof and able to stand extreme temperatures.
    • 10 preprogrammed cycles, including SOS in morse code.
    • Operating time up to 100 hours.
    • Sizes: diameter 4.3 inches, height 1.2 inches.
    With the magnets in the body they can be stuck to any metal surface or you can just place them on the road.
    At about 20 Euros each (about USD 25.70 (including sales tax)) I think they’re hard to beat.

  • FlashlightSolutions

    Since Flares are nto allow in general in my country I have resorted to flashlights that have beacon/strobe modes. And a small folding tripod with a holder for one.
    this way I can setup the light close to the curb, as far from the car as I like and in a proper/safe angle.

    Always in conjuction with the road triagle witch is mandatory over here too.

  • Abbott

    I agree with the Bass man. Their is a reason why we still carry flares in all our “work” cars. THEY WORK!! Just have to watch the dry desert surroundings.

  • Joe Sailor

    Triangles is fairly universal.. Most drivers know what they are, so they avoid being a part of it by driving in the other lanes. As for active signaling, Flares are also universal. But I would prefer those annoying LED lights that cyclists use to avoid getting hit so I pack those. Works great daytime or nighttime…. Just look at the SuperFlash lights and you will know how annoying they are to car drivers. They have several mounting devices for bikes so they adapt well to cars.

    Putting out one or two cones 50 feet from the car also helps if they run over the cone it would give them an indicator that they messed up..

  • Echo63

    I keep 2x Reflective triangles in the boot along with an “EFLARE” strobe that runs on 2x D batteries – i change the batteries out pretty regularly.
    in a box under the passengers seat i keep some basic tools, fuses, torch and a reflective/flouro vest too. so i can grab the vest before i exit the vehicle.

    I also make sure i get the car a long way off the road if i need to work on it (more than happy to trash a flat tyre to get somewhere safe to change it – although its typically not more than a mile or so)

  • MD500E

    Cyalume chemlights also makes 8 and 10 inch “road flare alternative” light
    sticks that come with the little bipod wire for each stick. I have a box of
    thirty-minute high intensity orange ones in my trunk that also have a
    strip of reflective tape around the end.
    I get them from when I can get them on sale.

    Orion flares have a ‘con’ for every ‘pro’ but when I have to carry them
    I use an airtight container. I’ve seen an accidental ignition burn out
    the trunk of a car that occurred because they were tumbling around loose.

    A not-too-obtrusive fix for containing flares I use is a piece
    of 4 inch PVC pipe with a glue sealed cap on one end and a
    screw cap on the other.

  • Bob Wassam

    Ok, I screwed up the first post. Flashlights – As far as I’m concerned the best deal in flashlights is from CosCo. Itm./art. 609650 gives you three 200 lumen flashlights that run on 3 AAA batteries. The cost on this item is $26. I get a sheet of them every time I go there and they’re cheap enough that I can give them away to friends without undue stress on my budget. Oh yeah, they come with batteries. That’s got to be the cheapest good flashlight ever.

  • Travis Goss

    I have been working as a Tow truck operator for going on 7 years now, and obviously, I have spent some time on the side of the road. I would most definitely have to agree with flares. Out of all the options, these work in ALL weather, just don’t throw them in a standing pool of water and you’re fine. They can be seen in all conditions and can last of upwards of 30 min per flare. Every law enforcement agency that I know of out here in NorCal and every tow truck is required to carry them. Why? Because they Work. I recommend keeping 4 30 min flares in your vehicle, 1 in a cubby(usually where your jack goes), 1 in your glove box, and 2 in your Vehicle emergency kit.

  • Steve Knight

    I recently just bought a aervoe led road flare. I like it because it has several different flash modes, it can be seen from a good distance, its rechargeable, waterproof, and its magnetic. You can place it anywhere on your vehicle or on the ground. It makes a great gift for family members as well, specifically ones you don’t trust not to burn themselves lol. The led is easy to operate, and supposedly it will still work if it gets run over. It seemed to be one of the more inexpensive leds.

  • Joe

    I recommend the LED ‘pucks’ for road side hazards. Example These are amazing. I used them on a tour in Baghdad and Afghanistan. They get attention!!!, because they are bright and annoying. Most last 3-10 hours depending on which setting you use. That is much greater than any flare. They are visible in daylight as long as you use a color. They won’t set anything on fire. Many are magnetic making easy to keep out of water in flooding scenarios. I used them at least 30 times as a medic in a QRF/ EOD reaction squad. We never charged them except after use and I know a set that worked perfectly after being in a cooking hot MRAP for nearly a year in Baghdad without use or charging. I have personally also run a couple over with a MRAP and they didn’t fail. I have a set in my car and just checked them, they also work fine after a year without attention. Give them a shot and you’ll change your mind.

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