What Do You Do If Your Brakes Don’t Work? 5 Steps That might Save Your Life

For many of us, driving is one of the most enjoyable activities we will ever do. However, our cars are also one of the most dangerous things we will ever own. With this in mind, learning how to drive well and being prepared for automotive emergencies are key to driving safely. The main safety feature of any vehicle is its brakes. But what do you do if your brakes don’t work?

Why do car brakes stop working?

Like any other mechanical part, brakes can fail. This is one of the worst-case scenarios for any driver. Brakes rely on a few factors to work well consistently. One of the easiest ways for brakes to stop working is to lose brake fluid pressure. This can happen because of a fluid leak, old soft hoses, an air bubble in the brake lines, or overheating. 

So, what do we do if we lose the brakes in our car while driving? Is there anything you can do to keep yourself and others safe? Good news, even if you lose braking in your car, there are a few things you can do to stop the car or at least slow it down enough to keep people safe. 

To respect your intelligence, dear reader, I’m not going to make one of the steps to pull your emergency brake. If your brake pedal fails and your car has a mechanical E-brake, that should always be your first step. We will proceed as if that isn’t an option.

Step 1: Don’t panic

A truck driving sitting in his truck, showing people that truck drivers are important and vital to every day life.
Truck driver | Getty Images

The first step is more of a “do less” sort of step. This is also the hardest part of any emergency situation. Panic and fear are totally understandable in this situation but reacting this way will make the situation more dangerous. The more panicked and afraid we get, the harder it can be to focus and make sound decisions. In a situation like this, we may only have fractions of a second to respond, and a clear head is key. 

The first and best move is to assess the field. If possible, look around and try to find a path to get your car away from other drivers or road hazards. If you have a clear path and enough runway, you can give yourself enough time to bring your car to a halt slowly. 

The best way to stay calm in an emergency is by knowing your plan backward and forwards. The better you know your plan, the quicker your body will snap into action, even if panic sets in. Secondly, practicing evasive, high-speed maneuvers in a safe and controlled environment can also teach your body the muscle memory needed to take over in an emergency. 

Step 2: Downshift 

Back in the days when manual transmissions were more common, this concept was more intuitive and more effective. However, even with automatic transmissions, you still have this option. 

Downshifting in the event of brake failure is key because lower gears will force the engine to slow the car down. This tactic has dangers of its own, but if you do it slowly and prepare for the jerk of engine braking, it can be a really effective way to slow a car without brakes. 

WARNING: Downshifting at higher speeds has the potential to lock your tires. Be prepared for a tough landing if this happens at higher speeds.

Step 3: Pump your brake pedal 

Even if your brakes fail, depending on the reason, there still may be a little brake juice left if you look hard enough. In older cars, losing brake fluid pressure wasn’t all that uncommon. In some cases, repeatedly pumping the brake pedal could build back enough pressure to slow the car enough to come to a stop. 

But even with newer cars, according to Top Driver, most modern vehicles have dual braking systems that independently control the front and back brakes. Pumping the brake pedal might generate enough pressure to get one of the systems working enough to matter. However, this won’t work if both front and rear brakes are compromised. But this is worth a shot as long as you have time.

Step 4: Keep all inputs to a minimum

One of the best ways to maintain control of a car, even at high speeds, is to minimize inputs (i.e., steering, throttle, and brake) to allow the car’s weight to center over all four wheels. Once a  car is settled, it is far more responsive and stable. 

Obviously, some input will be required, mostly steering. However, this is just a good tactic to keep in mind in any driving emergency. The fewer inputs, the better, but if you have to use throttle or steering, the key is to input those commands as smoothly and precisely as possible. 

Step 5: Find the safest way to stop your car

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A broken guardrail along a rural road | Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

If all other methods can’t stop your car fast enough, you can use barriers and guardrails as a kind of barbaric braking system. If you ever notice the giant ramps that lead to nowhere heading down mountain passes out west, those are run-offs for trucks and other vehicles to use in case of brake failure. 

If done carefully, running your car along guard rails or barriers can be an effective and safe(er) way to stop your car instead of smashing into someone or running off the run at high speeds. 

The best offense is a good defense 

The best way to keep you and your car safe from brake failure are to keep up with maintenance. It’s possible that a well-maintained braking system can just fail, but it isn’t likely. Always ensure your brakes are well taken care of and regularly check your brake fluid and pads.

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