When I was in high school, my car brakes gave out on me while driving down a hill. My memories of the incident are hazy—I remember it as a few seconds that stretched on forever: frantically stomping on the brakes; my car coasting to a stop; me, hyperventilating for an indeterminate period. That incident is but one of several reasons I now only drive when I absolutely must. As a new driver, I didn’t know what to do, and it was terrifying.
So what are you supposed to do if your car brakes give out on you while you’re driving? In my case, I was lucky enough to be on a deserted back road and didn’t have to worry about crashing into another car. Also my brakes hadn’t completely failed, which allowed me to eventually bring the car to a complete stop.
If your brakes fail on you while you are driving, these are some ways you can stay safe.
First, try and keep as calm as you can. This is easier said than done, but keeping calm in a stressful situation will help you react to the situation in the right way, which means it is the first thing you need to do to get control over your situation.
Turn on your hazard lights
If you have a spare second to do so safely, turning on your hazard lights will warn other drivers you are having a problem and they should steer clear. Of course, remembering this is hard in the moment, but it is a small action that will help keep you and other drivers safe.
Shift to a lower gear
If you are driving a manual car, this is when you need to shift to a lower gear. For an automatic car, that will simply mean taking your foot off the gas pedal—which, in all likelihood, you’ve already done. You might think it makes sense to put the car in neutral, but you should not to this: it will take away your car’s ability to slow down via engine braking, which only works if the vehicle is in gear.
Get to a place where you can safely slow down
This could mean driving onto the shoulder, or driving a little further until you reach a spot where there is enough open space, free from other cars, to allow you to safely slow the car down.
Try the brakes again
Most cars have a dual braking system that controls the front and rear brakes independently. Having both brakes fail at the same time is pretty rare. It’s been a while since that high school incident—more time than I care to admit—but that’s what happened to me. It certainly felt like my brakes had completely gone out, but it was a partial loss of braking power, rather than a complete one, which did mean I was able to stop eventually, even though I was going down a hill.
That said, losing half of your braking power is enough to feel like you are out of control, and it’s certainly terrifying.
It also helps if you know whether your car has an antilock brake system or standard brakes. For antilock brakes, the recommendation is brake firmly while you continue to steer, while the recommendation for standard brakes is to use short taps to pump the brakes.
That said, most people don’t know which type of brakes they have, and while your brakes are failing is no time to figure that out. As long as you are braking, that should help.
If you have time right now, check the next time you start up your car. If your car has antilock brakes, a yellow ABS alert will appear on your dashboard when you start up your car. You can also check your car manual to confirm.
If that doesn’t work, use the emergency brake
If trying the brakes again doesn’t help, now is the time to use your emergency brake, which is a separate system. Using the emergency brake will take longer than the regular brakes, so you’ll need to make sure you have enough room for it to do so, but it will stop your car eventually. Depending on your car, that will either involve pulling up the lever or pressing the pedal until your car comes to a complete stop.
Don’t shut off the car until it has come to a complete stop
You want your car to come to a complete stop before shutting off the engine, as doing so will turn off your power steering and could cause the steering wheel to lock up, introducing yet another problem.
Get your brakes checked out before driving again
Once you are safe, you will need to have your brakes checked out and repaired before you drive again. That also includes having your car towed to the shop for repairs. It’s also a good idea to have your brakes checked out regularly in order to prevent this kind of emergency from happening in the first place.