How to Deal with Brake Failure

Brake failure is unnerving and dangerous. No one wants to imagine that their vehicle might not stop, especially if you're traveling at freeway speeds. Brake failure can be sudden, dangerous, and deadly.

The reality is that brake failure is very rare today. Most vehicles have extensive safety features and it's not common to see a complete brake failure. Of course, there are always exceptions. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 25 percent of vehicle related critical reasons for accidents were related to brake failure. It does happen. Someday, you may be faced with having to stop your vehicle without the help of your brakes. Will you know what to do?

In this guide, you'll learn about the signs of brake failure, how to prevent it, and what to do if your brakes simply refuse to work one day. Brake failure can cause panic, but with these tips, you can stay calm, slow down, and steer your vehicle to safety.

Signs You're Experiencing Brake Failure

If you notice these signs, it's important that you get to safety and have your car serviced as soon as possible.

  • It takes longer to stop your vehicle: An increase in stopping distance indicates that your brakes may be struggling.
  • Your brake pedal feels unusual: If your brakes feel mushy, jumpy, or even just a little bit different, they may have a problem.
  • Your brakes make an unusual sound: Grinding or other unusual sounds from your brakes are generally bad news.
  • Your brakes simply don't work: Sometimes, brakes just fail without warning and they give you no response when you press on the pedal. This is a clear sign of brake failure.

Preventing Brake Failure

  • Have your brakes serviced on time: Follow your car manufacturer's recommendations for inspecting your brakes and stay on top of replacing pads and other parts as well as brake fluid. They do wear out eventually and will need to be updated periodically.
  • Pay attention to your brakes: Don't dismiss unusual sounds, brake pedal feedback, or slower stopping times. These are clear warning signs that something is wrong and you need to take care of your brakes.
  • Always follow at a safe distance: While a safe following distance won't stop brakes from failing, it can keep you safe. If your brakes fail suddenly, you'll need a few seconds to register and figure out what you're doing. Giving yourself extra room will also give you precious seconds to react and avoid plowing right into the car or object in front of you.

What to do if Your Brakes Fail

  • Stay calm: Remaining calm when your vehicle suddenly refuses to stop is certainly easier said than done. But it's important that you avoid panicing, as this can cause you to swerve, make erratic movements, or make bad decisions that can be dangerous.
  • Take your foot off the gas: If you're pressing the brake, you've probably already taken your foot off of the gas pedal. But in a panic, you might start pressing any pedal you can. Don't. Simply letting off of the gas will help you slow down a bit.
  • Stay on the road to slow down: Don't drive into a tree, pole, or other object unless you can't avoid it. Ideally, you won't hit anything at all. It's best to simply go straight and slow down by avoiding the gas pedal if at all possible.
  • Steer smoothly: Keep your movements steady and avoid making sudden moves, or you could lose control of your vehicle.
  • Pull over as soon as you can: As soon as you can safely slow down and pull over, do so. Move over to the right lane or to an exit if possible. But be careful not to crash into objects.
  • Remember to use your blinkers and check blind spots: Even in an emergency, you'll need to change lanes safely. Make sure you're checking blind spots and turning on your blinkers to avoid a collision with other vehicles.
  • Turn on your hazard lights and honk: Warn other drivers that you're having a problem by turning on your hazard lights and honking your horn. You may also want to flash your lights. They may not respond, but some may get out of your way.
  • Feel for objects under the brake pedal: Some brake failure is due to objects under the brake pedal. Bottles and cups can get behind your brake pedal and make it impossible to depress it. Slide your foot under the pedal and kick anything under there out of the way.
  • Don't turn off your vehicle: Avoid turning off the ignition until you're completely stopped. You may lose the ability to steer if you turn your vehicle off while moving.
  • Don't try to go into reverse or park: Going into reverse or park will not help and may be impossible. You'll simply waste time and may lose control of your vehicle.
  • Try your brakes again: Most vehicles today have a dual braking system that controls front and rear brakes independently. You may not have the braking power you're used to, but there could still be some control if you check again.
  • Apply steady and firm pressure to your brake pedal: If you have anti lock brakes (ABS), you may be able to get them working again by activating the ABS system. The system will pump your brakes for you and may build up pressure to get the brakes working again. ABS brakes will not lock up, so you should give them steady, firm pressure. You'll feel a pulse in the brake pedal. Don't worry: this is just the ABS doing its job.
  • Pump the brakes: If you don't have ABS brakes, you can pump them rapidly to build up pressure. It's best not to apply steady or hard pressure, as you might lock them up.
  • Use your engine brake: If you're driving a manual, downshifting into a low gear can slow down your vehicle. Just press the clutch, slowly shift into lower gears, and your engine will do the rest to slow your vehicle down. In an automatic, you can move from D to 3, 2, then 1 to limit the gear. The engine will whine, but slowing down this way can keep you safe.
  • Apply your emergency brake -- carefully: Your emergency brake, also known as a parking brake, can stop your car in an emergency. However, it is best at slow speeds. The emergency brake can be dangerous at high speeds and cause your vehicle to spin or skid right off the road if you apply it too suddenly or at a high speed. It's best to let your vehicle slow down as much as possible before applying the emergency brake to stop. Depress the brake release button when applying the brake so you can quickly release it if your brakes lock up.
  • Drive up a hill: Find an incline to slow your vehicle down if possible. Of course, you should be careful and choose wisely, as you may roll back down the hill.
  • Hit something soft: If you have no other choice but a collision, hitting bushes, a wooden fence, or another soft object is preferable to hitting a car, barrier, tree, or pole. Consider driving onto grass or gravel to help you slow down first.
  • Scrape your vehicle along a curb, wall, or other object: If you have no other choice and you're just not slowing down, you can slow down safely by gently scraping your vehicle along a curb or wall. You will cause body damage, but this can prevent a more serious accident.
  • Get towed to safety: Even if your brakes start working again, it's not safe to drive your vehicle until you have your brakes inspected and repaired. Get help from a tow truck and have them take you to a mechanic or dealer.

Photo by Flickr user thomasnm

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