• Feb 18, 2011
A brake failure is a fear possessed by many drivers. He... A brake failure is a fear possessed by many drivers. Here is what to do if it happens to you (NAParish, Flickr).
Eddie Hagan was driving down a rural road near his suburban home, behind the wheel of his 2003 Honda Civic. It was just after six in the morning and he was on his way to work. It was just like any other day -- until it wasn't.

"I stepped on the brakes near a curve," he said. "and nothing happened."

His car was gathering speed and headed towards a sharp curve. Seeing traffic approaching, Hagan applied the emergency brake and the car went into a spin, leaving the road and stalling in a field. He was lucky, shaken, but fine.

"In retrospect," he says. "I panicked. I didn't think to downshift. All I could think about was stopping."

Thankfully, complete brake failure is a rare occurrence. But when it happens, it's almost always unexpected -- and the results can be life threatening, to say the least.

In 2008, comedian Jerry Seinfeld crashed his vintage Fiat when the brakes failed. In this case, the emergency brakes also failed and Seinfeld had to swerve to avoid an intersection. The car flipped over before coming to a stop, but Seinfeld was uninjured in the crash, according to reports.

Repair Estimator
Others have been less fortunate. Experts say the best prevention for brake failure is routine maintenance and inspection, and that drivers should pay attention to their brakes with their feet and their ears. For example, if you hear grinding or squealing, take your car off the road and have it looked at by a certified mechanic. If the brake pedal feels different than it did the day before, do similarly.

10 Steps to Safety

The National Safety Council recommends the following steps if your brakes suddenly fail:

1. Downshift immediately

Putting the car in a lower gear allows the engine to slow the car, and may give you enough time to be able to safely pull over. Whether you're driving an automatic or a manual, try to downshift smoothly through the gears. If you downshift too quickly, you risk a skid. Do not shut off the car to stop it, as you'll lose your power steering, and do not put the car in neutral or you will lose the engine braking effect.

2. Try the emergency brake, but don't depend on it to stop you

If you're driving a car with a good, strong emergency brake, go ahead and use it. In cars with manual transmissions, the emergency brake is often operated via a hand-activated lever located behind the shifter, while in many automatics you use a small pedal located on the far left of the driver. It helps to try your emergency brake out at slow speeds to see how much stopping power it really has.

3. Work your vehicle into the right lane as soon as you can

Move toward the right shoulder of the road, or, if possible, toward an exit. If it is necessary to change lanes, do so smoothly and carefully, watching your mirrors and the traffic around you closely.

4. Stay off the gas pedal

Perhaps this goes without saying, but do not touch the gas pedal. Your goal, right now, is to slow down, pull over and safely stop.

5. Check for brake pedal blockage

Believe it or not, debris such as as soda cans or bottles, coffee cups, rolls of paper towels and other items bouncing around in the cockpit can wedge behind your brake pedal, preventing its use. Make sure the pedal's path is clear and if not, kick the obstruction out of the way.

6. Pump your brakes only if you have an older car without anti-lock brakes (ABS)

If your car has standard brakes they may respond to pumping, which could build up enough hydraulic pressure to allow them to work again. But many newer cars with ABS will do the pumping for you, so you should firmly press the brake pedal even if the brakes are not working. The brake failure may be temporary and if they suddenly start working again, your foot will be where it needs to be.

7. Alert others

Turn on your hazards and honk your horn until you're stopped so other motorists will know to give you plenty of room.

8. If you must hit something, aim for something "soft"

This is a judgment call, but a wooden fence is better than a tree, for example -- and anything is preferable to hitting a human being.

9. Stay calm

Knowing the steps outlined in this article and being able to perform them should give you the confidence to respond naturally instead of panicking, in the unlikely event that your brakes do fail.

10. Once you're safely stopped, summon help

Don't be tempted to drive the car again, even if the brakes suddenly start working. Have the car towed to a repair shop or dealer for inspection and repair.


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 64 Comments
      Kris
      • 3 Years Ago
      When using the emergency brake hold the release button or handle so that you can let up on the emercency brake in case the rear wheels lock up. If you do not hold the release the tendency is to over apply the emergency brake and the rear wheels will lock up causing a skid. This is true especially with pickup trucks.
      hotrodronnie
      • 3 Years Ago
      OMG! You poor people cannot tell the difference between a burn-out and a skid from the brakes... Those marks on the highway are from a Redneck testing out his 5.0 Mustant! Please get a life!
      hotrodronnie
      • 3 Years Ago
      Hey stupid...... those marks on the highway are from someone who did a burnout, not from sliding to a stop. Get a F'n life!
      • 3 Years Ago
      A prayer won't hurt
      • 3 Years Ago
      Why are they showing a picture of a burnout for a brake story? I don't think I want to be taking advice from someone who can't tell the difference between a full throttle 11 and skid marks.
      • 3 Years Ago
      if every thing else fails say oh meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee
      usmc32yrs
      • 3 Years Ago
      It is NOT an emergency brake ,it's a parking brake ...no where in any owners manual does it say engage while the car is in motion ...it ONLY works on one wheel.....
      • 3 Years Ago
      Remember downshifting can only slow your car. If you are heading uphill or are on a completely flat road, you will eventually roll to a stop. If you are going downhill, you cannot stop your vehicle by only downshifting.
      Koz
      • 3 Years Ago
      The emergency park is a mis-no-mer. It is only a parking brake and for it to pass inspection in any state it is required to hold a car to 1500 RPM and that is it. It will never stop a car that is already moving. Down shifting is good if you have a standard transmission only, automatic will not down shift even manually till they reach a certain speed. Total brake failure is rare because the newer cars have dual braking system. One for the front and the other for the back. Best thing to do is get of the road or street and scub off some speed.
      kwikrdrvr
      • 3 Years Ago
      What a shame it is that drivers know more about how to use their cell phones than they know about handling an automotive emergency. It's about time they begin to teach driving skills reather than how to aim a vehilcle down the road.
      irocker350
      • 3 Years Ago
      fidowashere advice like yours will get people killed and judging from your post I seriously doubt that you really are an ASE certified mechanic, if you personally have experience total brake failure many times I guess you're just not maintaining your vehicle properly, I've been driving for 37 years and have NEVER experienced brake failure but hey, I keep my vehicles well maintained and properly serviced but IF I did experience brake failure I would most definetely NOT shut off my engine
      • 3 Years Ago
      Tip number 3 is only partly right. It is correct that you want to get into the right lane, BUT do NOT exit the highway. If you can't stop on the shoulder, how do you think you will ************** taking an exit? Oh, I can guess. 1: you will roll the car on the off ramp. Yep, guess would stop it. 2: if you don't roll it you will slam into another car at the stop sign. That will bring it to a DEAD stop. Along with you and them. If you are an experienced driver that is prepared for the noise and pulling, along with a couple blown tires, GENTLY use a guard rail sideswipe to slow you down. This is assuming you have already lost some speed. Of course the advice about downshifting is good IF your car is one that actually will do a forced downshift. Some won't. If you have an uphill grade coming up in that case, go to neutral in the transmission. You then have no power adding to the speed.
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