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What to do if the brakes on your car fail ?

What to do if the brakes in your car suddenly fail? If you know what to do when the brakes of your car fail, you can drive your vehicle to safety, without causing damage to it and to yourself. Don't panic, stay alert and follow these tips to avert an accident if the brakes fail.

Visualize a scenario where you are behind the wheel and realize that the brakes of the vehicle are not holding. Just the thought of it happening can be unnerving, right! Imagine how harrowing the actual experience would be. While I sincerely hope that you never find yourself in such a situation, I also believe that it is always good to be prepared for every eventuality.

Experienced drivers know how to handle their vehicles, especially in emergency situations. Acquainting yourself with what can/should be done when the car brake fails can save you from a major mishap. In this case knowing what to do in an emergency situation equates to preparedness. Knowing how to react and what precautions to take, in an event where the brakes fail, would definitely prevent injuries and serious damage to your car.

Brake basics

Every driver must have a basic understanding of the brake system of their vehicle. Cars generally have two brake systems. There is the regular brake pedal and there is the hand brake or parking brake or emergency brake (they are just different names for the same thing). The handbrake operates independent of the pedal brake and can be used in case of failure of the main brakes.

Regular Brakes vs. Anti-Lock Brakes (ABS)

Many cars on the roads today, have the anti-lock brake system (ABS). You can check whether your vehicle has an ABS installed, the ABS logo gets displayed on the dashboard when you turn on the car. Your car's manual will also mention the type of brake system that is installed.

The ABS system has a better response time and makes vehicles slow down and halt, quickly. This system uses better technology and is hence more sophisticated. The technology allows the brake system to detect when the wheels are about to lock and mechanically 'pump' the brake to retain maximum pressure, keeping the wheel from locking. In the ABS system, it is normal for the brake pedal to vibrate when you attempt to slow down a fast moving vehicle suddenly.

Vehicles with regular brakes require manual pumping, especially in case of sudden stop. If you are attempting to make a sudden stop DO NOT just press down the brake pedal to the floor, instead press down and release the brakes repetitively, as fast as you can, to avoid the wheels from locking.

Maintenance is the key

Have your vehicle serviced regularly and have the mechanic check the brake fluid, the brake shoes/pads etc. Brakes can go through a lot of wear and tear, especially in crowded cities, where you drive bumper to bumper, with your right foot constantly hitting on the brake. Servicing the vehicle will ensure that your brakes stay in good shape and are road worthy.

Do you know what to do if your car brakes fail ?

Despite all the maintenance and precautions, brakes can still fail. Do not panic, if you find yourself driving a vehicle and the brakes failing. Keep your wits about you and carry out the following procedures –

Things to remember when brakes fail

It is important that you have the vehicle under control. So your first priority should be to steadily slow down the vehicle. This is crucial, as sudden slowing of the vehicle could result in you losing control of it and it could result in a major catastrophe. Do not attempt ramming into a tree, at full clip, to stop the vehicle.

How to gradually slow down the vehicle?

  • Switch to lower gears : The first step is to get the foot of the accelerator. That should slow the vehicle down. If your vehicle operates on a manual transmission, then begin shifting gears as quickly as possible. However, do not come down to the second gear, if you are doing high speed or are driving on the fifth gear. The vehicle should slow down before you switch to second gear. I am sure you practice the principle of not doing high-speed while driving in second gear, follow the same principle. If your vehicle has an automatic transmission then shift to manual transmission so you can shift to lower gears. Switch the gears one at a time - from the fifth gear to the fourth and from the fourth gear to the third and so on. Remember to pull your foot off the accelerator when you shift to lower gears, this will reduce the speed of the vehicle. If you are driving an automatic car, switch to manual transmission. As you are shifting gears, engage the handbrake/emergency brake/parking brake, for good measure

  • Test the brakes : Test the brake pedal, to see if it is going down too smoothly. Loose brakes point toward the absence of brake pressure. There could be other reasons too for soft brake pedals – low brake fluid, malfunctioning calipers or drums or a problem with the master cylinder. Sometimes rapid pumping of the brake can build up the pressure. Try it, you just might strike lucky. This trick can be applied on the ABS system as well because ABS gets activated only when the car brakes too hard. In this case, it won't happen. It may take a while, but once you've got pressure on the brake, you can safely press down on the brake and keep the brakes pressed to the floor. Remember, air or hydraulic brakes rarely fail completely. To build pressure, step down on the brake and release, repeatedly and quickly. In case you find resistance when pressing the brake pedal it could be because of an obstruction. Keep your eye on the road, and gently try to free whatever is causing the obstruction. Here is a tip. Never leave items, such as water bottles on the floor of your car, they can roll and get lodged under the foot pedals

  • Use the handbrake : If the main brake still doesn't function, even after you have tried the tricks suggested above, then you can use the handbrake/parking brake/emergency brake. However, remember to slow down first, by shifting into a lower gear. Don't pull the handbrake with one steady jerk, as you normally do. This would result in the locking of the wheels and the vehicle going out of control, especially, when you are doing high-speed. Once the vehicle has slowed down, slowly engage the handbrake. The handbrake will not stop the vehicle instantaneously because it stops just the rear wheels

Be cautious, take precautions

  • You are in a crisis situation and hence must remain extra guarded
  • Stay calm, don't panic
  • Use the 'Hazard Warning Lights' to signal to other motorists that you have an emergency. The switch to this is located in the center of the dashboard
  • Simultaneously, honk repeatedly, to get the attention of other motorists

If everything fails

There is always the likelihood of not a single tip mentioned here working or you might not have enough time to react. What do you do then? You will need to use unconventional means to slow down.

You can slow down a vehicle by creating friction. How do you do that?

Steps to reduce speed

  • Get off the main road and drive on loose gravel or grass
  • Roll down the windows to create air-resistance, it acts like a parachute
  • Let your wheels graze against the pavement or the centre median
  • Brush against underbrush or shrubbery, but steer away from trees, as the impact would be sudden and immense
  • Drive in a zigzag pattern, moving from side to side, as this would also result in slowing down the car, but attempt this carefully, as you could flip the car making quick, sharp turns, if the road is empty

What not to do when car brakes fail ?

  • Do not turn off the engine in an attempt to stop the vehicle. Keep the engine running, until the vehicle halts. Turning off the ignition will automatically lock the power steering, making it impossible for you to steer the wheel. It would be disastrous
  • Do not shift to the lowest gear directly, since doing so could affect the power train, making you lose control of the vehicle, especially if the clutch and gearbox disconnect in the process


Keep these important driving lessons in mind, and you will be able to drive your vehicle to safety, and to a halt. You will be thankful that these tips helped you avert a major accident. Remaining calm and acting promptly to avert a catastrophe should be your priority. They would make a difference between life and death. However, the points illustrated above are not a guarantee of a fail-proof solution, but they would certainly minimize the damage and cut down risks.

Article by Juana
Juana is a freelance writer, with years of experience, creating content for varied online portals. She holds a degree in English Literature and has worked as a teacher and as a soft skill trainer. An avid reader, she writes on a variety of topics ranging from health, travel, education and personality development.

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Author: NK SHARMA22 Sep 2017 Member Level: Gold   Points : 3

The author has written well. I would like to add few points.
1.Do not panic. act wisely. If the road is clear, it will take 200-300 meter to stop your car. Keep on doing slow downing on the road and do not leave the road. Leaving road may cause an accident.
2. Give some indication to public that your brake has failed. Take your right hand out with straightened palm facing front side. It is an indication to the traffic behind you that you are going to stop/slow down to avoid hit back.
3. Show red cloth or red flag to warn the public of danger.
4. You can shift two gear at a time lower i.e. from 5 th to 3rd and from 3rd to 1. It will save time.
5.Once it is slow, about to stop, bring the car in neutral gear take to side and switch off the the engine.
6. Call the roadside assistance from your insurance company. They will repair the car on the spot or willtake the car nearby garage.

Author: Juana02 Oct 2017 Member Level: Diamond   Points : 5

Thank you, NK Sharma, for leaving a comment.

I have a few questions.to stop which would be a great help, if you could provide answers.

1. How do you slow down within 200-300 metres, if the road is clear, and your brakes aren't working?
2. How do you “keep doing slow downing" when your brakes are down?
3. Experts suggest that going off the road, such as driving on grass or on gravel is a good way to create friction and help stop a vehicle faster. Why do you think it would cause an accident?
4. Red cloth or red flag is such a brilliant idea, but where do you get one from in a moving car? And assuming you are driving alone, should one be indulging in such theatrics, when the brakes aren't working?
5. Yes, gears can be shifted from higher to lower, but shouldn't that be done when the car is under control and not when you're doing high-speed? Going down to a lower gear, as you suggested can affect the powertrain and put you in a dangerous situation, especially if the gearbox and the clutch disconnect. It'll be inviting more trouble.

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