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Your car can be a friend - or your worst enemy if it breaks down and you haven't prepared. Cars can and do break down, and a few basic tools and spare parts could spell the difference between a slight inconvenience and a long, costly delay. Some emergency equipment could even save a life.

You can't be prepared for every possible road emergency, but here is a list of equipment that can help with the most common problems:1. Road emergency signals. These will keep other motorists from running into your car while you are making repairs or waiting for help. Day or night, triangle reflectors are generally a more visible and reliable highway warning device than flares.

Fuse flares have one important advantage other than their low price. They are especially effective in dense fog. Nevertheless, flares are plagued by important disadvantages. They burn out in 15 to 39 minutes; motorists must expose themselves to risks while lighting and placing new flares; they are a fire hazard around spilled gasoline. They produce gagging fumes and they can cause severe burns unless one points them away and holds them at a distance after lighting them. They must be kept dry and out of reach of children.

Triangle reflectors command immediate attention both day and night and their size helps in judging distances. They can point the way round a disabled car when properly placed.

2. Car jack. Learn how the jack works, but not on a stormy night when you have a flat. Before you have a flat, unscrew, grease and replace the wheel lug nuts to keep corrosion from "freezing" them.

3. Plywood jack support. A foot square of 3/4 inch plywood will keep the jack from sinking into soft, muddy ground.

4. Lug wrench. It's best to buy a large, cross-shaped lug wrench so enough leverage to loosen tight lug nuts can be applied. Those coming with a car may not provide enough leverage.

5. Spare wheel and tire. Don't neglect to occasionally check pressures of the spare tire.

6. Tire pump. It's easier to pump up a tire that has a slow leak and drive a short distance to a service station than to remove the wheel and mount the spare tire.

7. Flashlight. A trouble light with a long cord that plugs into the cigarette lighter works well unless the car has a battery problem. Any battery-powered flashlight should have its batteries checked once a month.

8. Fire extinguisher. The extinguisher is best mounted on the front passenger compartment on the floor just in front of the driver's seat or under the dashboard on the passenger's side. Check the pressure indicator occasionally. The extinguisher should be able to fight all three classes of fires, (A, B and C). Class A fires are those fueled by paper, wood, plastic, rubber, etc. Class B fires are fueled by flammable liquids, such as gasoline, greases, etc. Class C fires involve electrically live devices.

9. Hand tools. These include: open-end wrenches, Phillips- and regular-head screwdrivers, pliers, locking-jaw pliers, electrical tape, pocket knife, small hammer, and a small can of penetrating oil. A metal toolbox in the trunk may do, but a plastic fishing-tackle box that is low enough to slip under the right front seat will not slide around.

10. Duct tape. It can temporarily fix a ruptured radiator hose.

11. Fuses. Carry two spares of each capacity that your car requires.

12. First aid kit. Contents should be primarily for trauma (bleeding, fractures) rather than an extended camping trip.

13. Small pad and pencils. In case of an accident, you'll need to write down the details.

14. Coins. Tape quarters under the dashboard - only for emergencies. These are to be used for a pay telephone call.

-Alton Thygerson is a professor of health sciences at Brigham Young University.