How to Handle a Car With Total Brake Failure

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Brake failure is terrifying and most motorists consider it to be a worst-case scenario. Here are a few things to keep in mind in case you find yourself in such a situation.

  • Awareness of your surroundings is key. Relax and focus on paying attention to the road while assessing the situation. A few things to observe:

    • Did the brake pedal go down when pushed?
    • What are the surroundings like?
    • What speed is the vehicle going?
  • If the brake pedal went down when pushed, then keep the pedal depressed and wait for some result. There is a good chance that keeping the brake pushed all the way down will slow the vehicle, maybe even to a complete stop. If there a problem with a component of the brake system like the master cylinder or one of the lines, then there is probably some pressure still in the system, even if there is less than an optimal amount.

    • Note: If your vehicle has ABS, then keep the pedal pushed hard to the floor and find a safe place to stop. If your vehicle does not have ABS, then pump the brakes with varying amounts of pressure when the brakes activate so as to not have the wheels lock up.
  • If the brake pedal does not go down when pushed, then there is probably something lodged behind the brake pedal. Full cans of soda are very good at this, as they can roll into tight spaces easily and are near impossible to crush when sealed. Keeping your eyes on the road, pull into the least populated lane of traffic and try to get your toes into the space behind the brake pedal from the side. This motion should dislodge whatever may be stuck behind the pedal. Afterwards, find a good place to pull over and remove any garbage from the floor of the car.

  • If neither of the above solutions remedy the issue, then the first priority is to reduce speed. As soon as the brakes first fail to work, all acceleration must stop unless required to avoid an accident. Speed reduces the number of viable solutions to stop the vehicle the higher it gets.

    • In a car with a manual transmission, downshift when the revs are low enough and let the transmission do the braking. Be extra cautious of vehicle approaching from the rear, as this type of braking does not activate the brake lights. Once in first gear, find a good place to pull off the road and come to a complete stop by gently applying the emergency brake. Pumping the emergency brake can keep the wheels from locking up as well.
    • In a car with an automatic transmission, shift into a lower gear below drive (“D”), usually numbered “2,” “2,” and “1.” This is slightly less effective than with a manual transmission, but the core concept is the same. Once the revs go down to a safe level, shift down to “2.” Once the vehicle has slowed significantly, shift into “1” and either gently apply or pump the emergency brake when there is a safe place to pull off of the road.
  • As mentioned above, the emergency brake can be a huge help in this situation. That said, it can also make the rear wheels lock up and cause the vehicle to veer unpredictably. Hold down the button on top of the Emergency Brake lever whenever using it in this type of application. Apply the brake slowly and pump it slightly when the braking starts. If the vehicle has a foot pedal for the emergency brake, then proceed with extreme caution. This type of brake is very prone to locking up.

    • The emergency brake should only ever be used for braking in an emergency. It is not designed to make the whole vehicle come to a stop from high speed. While it is better than nothing, it can cause as much trouble as any malfunction if used incorrectly.
  • If all of the above methods were ineffective, then it is time to assess the surroundings for an emergency stop. Ideally, letting the car coast to a stop and pulling over is optimal. In many situations, though, this is impossible. To avoid a serious wreck with another vehicle, look for grass or other soft turf on the side of the road. Flat land is better than a hill as well. Avoid rivers, lakes, cliffs, large rocks, or steep hills. Some highways on large hills (the worst place to lose brake pressure) will have “runaway truck lanes” that can be used to stop in an absolute emergency life-or-death situation. These should really only be used by trucks, but if the alternative is a wreck, than any viable solution is a better solution.

Keeping the floor of your car clean and doing routine brake system maintenance can prevent almost all brake failures, so never neglect the safety-oriented parts of your car.


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Number of Reviews

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Rating Summary
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Rigoberto

9 years of experience
706 reviews
Rigoberto
9 years of experience
Chevrolet Equinox - Brake Pads Replacement (Rear) - Niles, Illinois
Rigo was great! He got there early, finished the job early, left everything clean. He changed my rear pads and rotors. The original quoted time was 90 minutes, he was done in about 60. He knows what he is doing and I am recommending him to all my friends and coworkers.
Mercedes-Benz C250 - Brake Pads Replacement (Front, Rear) - Chicago, Illinois
Rigo is a maverick hands down. Don’t take your car for work elsewhere. Especially great at Mercedes—this guy knows his profession! I will be using him for everything related to my car going forward.

Arturo

25 years of experience
35 reviews
Arturo
25 years of experience
Kia Forte - Brake Pads Replacement (Front) - San Diego, California
ARTURO is great! very professional , fast, replaced my front brake pads and oil an filter change. everything now works and works well. Brakes have much improved stopping power and engine is smooth and quiet.Arturo is also kind and thoughtful. "Your mechanic" is very fortunate to have Arturo Lopez represent your company. I enthusiastically recommend him and "Your mechanic> as a fine operation Best regards to the Team Peter Marto
Nissan Maxima - Brake Pads Replacement (Front, Rear) - San Diego, California
Arturo was prompt and completed my brake repair, including new rotors in a very efficient manner. I am very pleased with the quality of the work and the parts and will definitely look to have him service our other car in the near future.

Scott

32 years of experience
345 reviews
Scott
32 years of experience
Lexus IS250 - Brake Pads Replacement (Rear) - Denver, Colorado
Always on time, speedy, professional, and pleasant to interact with. The work is always consistent and we'll done. I can't reccomend Scott highly enough!

Michael

10 years of experience
15 reviews
Michael
10 years of experience
Nissan Sentra - Brake Pads Replacement (Front) - Conyers, Georgia
He was promptly on time and got the job done efficiently in a timely manner. I really appreciate the rapid respone on getting the job done! I would most definitely use this service again.

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