1. If your brakes have become non-responsive, turn on your emergency flashers immediately. Honk your horn repeatedly to let other drivers know about you.
2. Shift the car into a lower gear if you can. On automatic gearboxes a lower gear is typically labeled L or 2.
3. Once you’ve done this, pump the brakes. This will build up enough pressure in the hydraulic system to give a little bit of resistance in the wheels, forcing the car to slow down.
4. If your car has anti-lock brakes, press down hard on the brakes.
5. Still not stopping? Shift to neutral, then put on the parking brake. This should bring you to a total stop.*
Putting the car in neutral basically disconnects the engines from the wheels, which removes any force from moving the wheels forward (besides inertia). Shifting to neutral should be a last ditch effort, so be careful.
Also, the parking brake is not powered by hydraulics. So, if your brakes go out, you can use the parking brake as another system to help you stop. Be careful with the parking brake so you can prevent skidding out of control.
Luckily, many vehicles have fail-safes that can help you slow down even when your brakes go out. In the unlikely event that your brakes go completely out, you can use these methods to help bring your car to a halt.
Note: while these will help stop your car, you will still need distance no matter what method. Without distance while braking during a failure, you may slam into traffic. Signal when possible and maneuver your vehicle to the right lane and then the shoulder.
Signs of Possible Brake Failure
Before having to use the above steps, try and spot brake failure before it happens.
- Grinding noises
- Brake Squealing
- Sluggish response on the brakes
- Can’t stop when you put your foot on the brake
- Irregular movements
- Warning lights
- Shaking steering wheel
- Car pulls to one side
What Causes Brake Failure?
Brakes work because of friction. If your brake becomes too hot, it can heat up the surrounding area and diminish the amount of friction available just by wearing it down. This is called brake fade.
Brake fade can be split into 4 categories:
- Domino – when some brakes on your vehicle have more resistance than the rest of the brakes. Overloaded brakes due to domino fade can result in drastic failure.
- Fluid – when brake lines wear down and crack brake fluid can escape from the system, causing hydraulic brakes to fail.
- Friction – when the brake is unable to stop by using just the pad or other friction-causing mechanism. This can result in worn brake pads.
- Mechanical when a brake drum expands due to inadequate conditions through too much heat from friction. The expansion can cause other brake mechanisms to be affected, resulting in failure.
Brake fade can also be exacerbated by low or old brake fluid, warped brake rotor, oil or grease on the brakes, and other suspension and tire issues.
Sometimes, brake fade is not the culprit. Items such as misaligned brakes or sticky brake calipers can affect the brakes. And, if the brakes spring mechanism comes loose, you may be in drastic trouble.
How to Prevent Brake Failure
Check brake fluid levels regularly
If you are going in for an oil change, check your brake fluid at the same time. It is recommended that brake fluid is flushed out every 4 years (or 48,000 miles). That way, any excess water your brake fluid has absorbed is removed, improving your brakes and their longevity.
Be aware of your car
If your brakes sound weird, don’t pretend you don’t hear anything. Go to a mechanic and get them looked at. The same goes for your stopping distance; as brakes degrade, your car needs more distance to stop.
Pay attention to warning lights
If a warning light for your brakes pops up, go to a mechanic. The worst that could happen is that it’s a bad light and you’re out a couple bucks.
*Going to neutral can be a difficult decision. if the issue is your throttle is stuck then you should put the car into natural. however when slowing down the resistance from the gears turning over the pistons will slow your car down more.