What to Do When Your Car Brakes Fail

So you're exiting the freeway or driving through the highway, dealing with a hairpin turn or a killer ramp with a steep grade. However, when you try out the brakes to slow down, you realize that nothing is happening.

Your car isn't slowing down or stopping. Your brakes are gone! What are you supposed to do as you careen toward the guardrail at 121 kilometers per hour or 75 miles per hour, with a shallow lake waiting below?

First off, don't panic. Overreacting in such a situation will only make things worse. There are (safe) ways to stop even when your brakes fail.

How to Stop a Brakeless Car

  • Take Your Foot off the Gas: Turn off your cruise control if it's on or if you have it in the first place and let go of your foot from the gas. In most vintage or manual gearshift cars without the fancy computers in them, taking your foot off the gas is enough to lead to a vehicular slowdown. Cars with cruise control systems should switch off as soon as you touch the clutch or brake. However, to be safe rather than be sorry, make sure it's turned off regardless.
  • Pump the Brakes and Shift to Low Gear: Just in case, pump your brakes repeatedly. If your brakes haven't completely failed, pumping them might rebuild enough pressure in the braking system to make it work again. This can take a while, so keep pumping those brakes. You should do this even if your car features the Anti-Lock Brake System (ABS) because it only activates when your car is braking too hard. Since your brakes have failed, it's unlikely your ABS will turn on. Shifting to a lower gear can also help considerably in slowing you down.
  • Use the Emergency Brake: The parking brake can double as an emergency brake. You can use it to stop a vehicle even though it will take longer than using your regular pedal brakes. It works by stopping your rear wheels from spinning, so then those wheels will serve as your rubber stops. A combination of getting your feet off of the gas and raising the emergency brake can lower your momentum considerably. Push the release button on the brake and apply it slowly and steadily to keep it from locking your tires when applied too fast or too hard.
  • Pay Attention to How the Pedal Feels: If your brake has sunk to the floor and feels spongy when you apply it, you might have low levels of brake fluid, problems with your brake caliper or brake drum, or a faulty master cylinder. If your brake is instead stiff and unmoving, something in your brake system might've seized altogether. There could also be an obstruction under your pedal that's blocking you from applying your brakes, usually your driving shoes or slippers (it's more common than you think).

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