How to Respond if Your Brakes Fail
If you’re a driver, there are certain scenarios that you must prepare for so that if they happen to you, you can deal with them calmly and effectively, minimizing the chance of the situation becoming worse. One of those scenarios is brake failure.
The first step is to understand what kind of brakes your vehicle actually has, anti-lock brakes or regular brakes. This can be figured out by simply starting your car. If a logo lights up showing “ABS” then you have anti-lock brakes, if not, you have regular brakes.
Secondly, you must get into the habit of testing your brakes every time you get behind the wheel of your car. Regularly make these checks and it is very unlikely that you will ever need to deal with sudden brake failure.
Testing Your Brakes
There are two simple checks that you can make regarding your brakes and both can be done very easily and in a matter of seconds. You have the static brake test, and the rolling brake test.
Static Brake Test
The static brake test is as simple as pressing the brake pedal when you get into the car. You should feel resistance from the pedal if they are healthy. No resistance (if it feels soft and easily pushes to the floor) means that you probably have a fluid leak and you should not attempt to drive the car until it has been looked at.
Rolling Brake Test
The second test is the rolling brake test and this can be checked by pressing the brake pedal gently as soon as possible after moving off and while driving slowly.
Note: this is not an emergency stop! Simply ‘feel’ the brakes at five or ten miles per hour.
Symptoms of Impending Brake Failure
Brakes operate on a hydraulic system and for this system to work properly, there must be fluid in the hydraulic pipes. If this fluid starts to leak from the system the brake pedal will feel ‘softer’ and the vehicle will take longer to come to a stop.
In an emergency situation, it is possible that you may be able to build up the brake pressure by repeatedly pumping it, however, this is only an ’emergency’ measure to stop the car once – it is not a ‘get you home’ solution.
If your brakes are soft they can fail at any moment and even if they don’t, they won’t be effective which could possibly lead to an accident. Trying to drive this way is not only putting your own life at risk, but also the lives of other road users.
If on the other hand your brakes feel ‘hard’ but are not working properly then it could mean that there is a break somewhere in the system. This is not always the case however, it could just be that something is jammed under the brake pedal.
Total Brake Failure
As I said above, it is rare that total brake failure will happen, but it DOES happen. If you are driving and need to stop ‘now!’ use the handbrake in an on-off pumping motion, keeping the release button pressed throughout.
If possible, you should change to second gear and bring the clutch up gently (the engine compression will make the clutch feel like a brake) then use the parking brake to stop.
If you have an automatic vehicle, shift to ‘low’ – if there is a manual option on your auto, change down one gear at a time.
If you have a pedal operated parking brake you need to operate the brake release handle at the same time to avoid locking the rear wheels.
If you use the parking brake pull it gradually. If you try to suddenly tug on the brake or push on the parking brake pedal, it can lead to the wheels locking up and loss of control of the vehicle.
If you have an electronic parking brake only use it in a last resort emergency – these brakes tend to operate on an ‘on/off’ basis and will probably lock your wheels solid.
Another method is to change to a low gear and switch off your engine. However, this should be done with extreme caution. You must have a straight run off space in which to stop; this is because your power steering will fail as soon as the engine is switched off – it could be almost impossible to turn the wheel.
A second danger of switching off the engine is that the steering lock could engage; in some models this can happen even if the key is still in the ignition switch. Find out how your steering lock operates now – if you wait until your brakes fail it will be too late.
It is reassuring to note that most cars built since the early 1990’s have ‘dual circuit’ brakes which will still work on at least two wheels in the event of a hydraulic system failure. Dual-circuit brake systems are a safety feature that effectively incorporates two separate hydraulic systems, if one fails the other still operates.
In absolute extreme situations it may be that you have no choice but to ‘crash’ your vehicle but this should only ever be used as a very last resort.
If this is the only possible choice, avoid sudden deceleration which will lead to total control loss of the vehicle. You should control, and THEN crash. The idea is to ‘drag’ the car to a halt.
You should use the methods explained above to slow your vehicle as much as possible and then you can ‘crash’ by running parallel along a kerb, a crash barrier or a wall.
This will cause considerable damage to your vehicle but no matter what the worth of your car, it is not as much as your life is worth.
Also you must be aware that a kerb must only be used if you have full control and can keep the car straight – hitting a kerb hard, or at speed, can flip a vehicle over.
If there is an opportunity to run off into gravel or a muddy verge that will also slow the car but only do this if you can steer a straight line – wheels can ‘dig in’ if you turn on soft ground causing the car to flip over.
- Getting out of the way – in order to not cause danger to the lives of other road users, they need to know what you are doing. If you need to move across lanes, signal then try to move into a gap.
- Hazard lights and horn – putting your hazard warning lights on will let other drivers know you are experiencing difficulties. Use your horn.
- Turn on the air con – The air conditioner should be turned onto the coldest setting with the highest fan speed. This will absorb a couple of kilowatts of power. Turning on all accessories, such as the heated rear window and your lights, will also create some drag on the alternator.
What Not to Do
- Don’t put your gearbox into neutral or you’ll have no engine braking.
- Don’t put your gearbox into reverse unless you want it to be converted to thousands of tiny metal shards (and you’ll have no engine braking).
- Don’t weave from side-to-side at high speed. Yes, it creates more friction, but you risk spinning out, and if your brakes have failed, any electronic stability control measures (which work by braking individual wheels) might not work. At low speed, it’s probably fine.
- Don’t stop the engine – you’ll lose your power steering