Noticing your brakes have failed while driving can be a shocking experience. While you hope it never happens to you, prepare yourself for such a situation by familiarizing yourself with some tips to help you stop as safely as possible.
A clear head can be your ally behind the wheel, especially when things go awry. If your brakes fail, it’s typically in your best interest to remain calm and attempt to get your car safely off the road.
Unless you’re behind the wheel of a classic car, your vehicle likely has a dual braking system, which controls your front and rear brakes independently. As a result, both halves of the system would have to fail for your car to totally lose all braking power. Still, reducing your car’s braking ability in half can be enough to make it feel unsafe, but there may still be some stopping power. Try applying strong, consistent pressure to the brake pedal to see if you can slow the car down.
If your main braking system isn’t working, one option is to very carefully employ the emergency brake, according to Tech-Cor Research. The emergency braking system is separate from the main, hydraulic brake system, and it can help stop the vehicle — although it will likely take you longer to this way than it would with the traditional brake pedal.
Another way to slow your car down, according to Autoblog, is by keeping your foot off the accelerator and downshifting so that the engine can help slow the car down. If you have a manual transmission, work your way down through the gears to slow the car down. If you have an automatic transmission, taking your foot off the accelerator should cause your car to shift to lower gears as it slows down.
However, in newer cars with automatic transmissions that allow you to also drive them manually, you may want to use the paddle shifters (if available), which are levers on the steering wheels of cars with this feature, or put your transmission in manual mode and downshift to the lowest gear. Check your car owner’s manual for information on using your automatic car in manual mode.
After you’ve slowed the car down, it’s critical that you get your car off the road to minimize the chances of getting hit. If you’re on the highway or a larger road, you’ll need to concentrate on getting your car safely into the right lane so that you can get it off the road. Don’t forget to use your turn signals, and pay attention to surrounding traffic. Cautiously make your way into the slow lane and turn on your hazard lights when you get there. Remember to steer around any possible hazards, and if needed, use your car’s lights and horn to alert other motorists.
Move from the right lane onto the shoulder (or, ideally, somewhere safe off the road, such as a parking lot), then shift into neutral. Use your emergency, or parking, brake to slow the car down, but be prepared to release it if the car starts to skid. If the emergency brake doesn’t work, you’ll need to keep your eyes peeled for other ways to stop. PBS.org suggests that you try rubbing your wheels against the curb to scrub off speed or drive onto a soft shoulder.
While shutting your car off might seem like it would help slow it down, it’s best to keep the engine running until you’ve reached a complete stop, says Josh Max, auto correspondent for the New York Daily News. Turning the ignition off will likely also shut down your power steering, which makes the vehicle more difficult to turn, and it could also cause the steering wheel to lock into place. So, you may want to get your vehicle stopped and off the road before turning it off.
You may need some assistance once your car is safely off the road. Make it obvious by raising your hood and keeping your hazard lights on. If you have reflective triangles or road flares, you can also put them behind your car to make yourself more visible. Do your best to stay out of oncoming traffic, and avoid standing next to (or behind) your car if you can. You can also use your cellphone to call for roadside assistance.
Even it seems like the brakes are operating normally again, you may want to have them inspected by a professional before you try to drive it again. Have your vehicle towed to a dealer or mechanic, so they can inspect your car and provide the necessary repairs. Keep in mind that you can also prevent problems before they start by having your car’s brake pads inspected regularly.
Knowing what to do if your brakes go out could help prevent injuries and damage to your vehicle.
Originally published May 2014.