ICYMI: Five tips to survive brake failure when driving

Imagine driving along the highway, playing your favourite tunes, be they Nigerian or foreign, and nodding your head rhythmically. Your hands are fixated on the steering, your eyes on the road, and your mind on your destination. But then, as you approach traffic or perhaps a bump on the road, you press the brake pedal, but nothing works. You press it again, this time harder, still your car shows no sign of stopping.

Nobody would blame you if you started screaming. It’s actually a terrifying scenario and you wouldn’t have expected such a thing happening to you. After all, there is no driver that ever expects an accident when driving.

No one prays for such a thing to happen to them as such an incident has resulted in accidents leading to deaths or injuries, sometimes permanent injuries.

However, should you ever find yourself in such a situation, don’t be too panicky. The biggest mistake you can make is to accept that there is nothing you can do because really, there are several ways you can handle the situation successfully, and in the process save your life and those of others on the road.

So, if you’re driving and your brakes fail, experts advise that you take the following steps to survive.

Draw attention to your car

Peter Schmiedchen of says as soon as you realise that your brakes have failed, warn the drivers and pedestrians around you. Also turn on your hazard lights right away and honk the horn, perhaps repeatedly, to draw attention to your vehicle.

Apply tyre friction

Friction is the brakes’ best friend, Schmiedchen says, adding that friction on the brake disc causes the car to slow. Even if the brakes aren’t working, experts say friction can still help you.

If the roads are clear, and you’re able to do this, start driving the car in a zigzag manner. The friction generated by the tyres on the road will help reduce speed.

Another thing you can do is to carefully drive against the guardrail. That will also help to reduce speed.

But if those tips are not enough, if possible, try driving over small plants and shrubs on the side of the road. Remember that it’s your life that you’re trying to save, not the car.

Apply the emergency brake

According to a Lagos-based automobile repairer, Moshood Bandele, vehicles have two braking systems – the primary and secondary systems. The primary system is the foot brake while the secondary system is called the handbrake or emergency brake, or e-brake for short.

Bandele explains that the emergency brake bypasses the hydraulic system and uses a metal cable that connects it to the rear brakes.

“If your main brakes fail, the emergency brake should still work, though it doesn’t have enough force to stop the car,” he says.

Experts say the emergency brake works best if you use it slowly and carefully. If you apply it too rapidly, the rear brakes could lock up and force you into an uncontrolled spin.

It goes without saying that you need to be aware of where your emergency brake is located. Some cars use a hand-activated lever, while others have a small pedal to the left of the gas and brake pedals.

It’s a good idea to try your emergency brake when you are driving at a slow speed to see how powerful it actually is. You can use an empty parking lot or other areas where there are no drivers and pedestrians around.


If your car has a manual transmission, Schmiedchen advises to slowly begin going down the gears.

“This is known as engine braking,” he says.

“You may have heard of 18-wheelers doing this. The idea is to go to a lower gear at higher revolutions per minute, or RPMs. This creates more torque through the transmission, and a vacuum inside the manifold, that the pistons have to fight against.

“So, the power and speed will drop. Like using the emergency brake, don’t do this too quickly. If you go down through the gears too quickly, the rear wheels might slow down too rapidly, and this will make your car go into a spin,” Schmiedchen says.

And if you’re driving an automatic car, Schmiedchen says you might have access to a triptronic transmission, which allows you to override the automatic system and select the gear you want.

“Slowly go back down the gears, down to the first gear,” Schmiedchen adds.

In a similar manner, Bandele cautions against downshifting too quickly, as this can cause a skid.

Bandele also cautions against putting the car in neutral as this will take away the engine braking effect.

“If you have regular brakes (not anti-lock brakes), you can try pumping the brakes quickly,” he says.

Still on downshifting, experts at Defence Driving, United States, say every driver should know whether or not they have anti-lock brakes or regular brakes. Here’s how to determine it: If you have a logo that lights up whenever you start your car and says ABS, then you have anti-lock brakes. If not, you have regular brakes.

Head for the hills

According to Schmiedchen, if you’re still trying to slow down, look for a hill or any upward slope that can help you. It could be an on-ramp, a hilly street, or even a specially designed run-off area. Even a slight upward slope could provide the gravitational force you need to slow down to a complete stop.

When you’re able to get your car to stop, call for help to help tow it for repair. Even if you manage to get your brakes working again after a malfunction, you still need to have your car taken to a repair shop for inspection. It’s far too dangerous to attempt to continue driving.

Common brake failure causes, maintenance tips

Meanwhile, brake failure doesn’t just occur. Hence, it is important for car owners to notice the signs before getting into a precarious situation. The following are some of the signs that a car might be having brake failure, according to experts at Ace Mechanics in Australia.

  • Overheating brake pads: Brake pads can overheat due to excessive use and become hard or brittle. This hardening decreases the ability of the pads to properly grip the wheel rotor disk, increasing the distance necessary to stop the car.
  • Damaged rotor disks: Damaged or “scored” rotor disks on the wheel can decrease the life of your brake pads, making stopping more difficult. Have your rotor disks smoothed or “turned” by a trained mechanic when your brake pads are replaced.
  • Leaking hydraulic fluid: Oil or other hydraulic fluid can leak from your car’s engine or brake lines. If you find stopping has become difficult, have your brakes inspected to rule out any contamination from a leaking hydraulic line.
  • Driving through mud or water: Driving through mud or water will naturally “lubricate” your brake pads and rotor disks. Gently tapping the brakes can help remove excess water and re-establish the proper friction between your car’s brake pads and rotor disks. As always, use caution when driving in wet conditions, especially when your car’s wheels are partially submerged in water.
  • Loss of hydraulic brake fluid pressure: Loss of hydraulic brake fluid pressure will decrease your ability to stop quickly. If you find your brakes don’t seem to work at all or are working only modestly, tap the brakes several times to help force fluid throughout the brake system. Though effective in helping stop your car, this technique should not be used unless absolutely necessary. Have a certified brake specialist check your brake system for any leaks and refill the reservoir with brake fluid.
  • Overloading your automobile: Overloading any automobile will change its ability to stop and can potentially damage the braking system. Only load your car as suggested by the owner’s manual. So try taking out any unnecessary items and avoid taking on more weight than your car can safely handle. Also consider the weight of aftermarket products before installing them on your vehicle since they might be heavier than their original equipment counterparts. The lighter the vehicle, the easier it will be on your brakes, tyres, gas tank, and, ultimately, your wallet!
  • Listen and watch for warning signs: These may include unusual noises, strange brake response, and abnormal feeling when you press on the brakes. These may indicate a dangerous problem, so have your brakes checked out right away.
  • While driving, try coasting to slow down before applying brakes whenever possible. This helps to preserve your car’s brakes by putting less pressure on them.
  • Avoid braking when cars ahead of you brake unnecessarily. For example, they may be following too closely to the vehicle ahead of them when you have plenty of distance to coast. So slow down and keep a great distance behind them, not only to preserve your brakes, but also for safety purposes.
  • Invest in good, reliable brakes. They may cost a little bit extra, but they will make a difference in the long run in terms of efficiency, safety, and durability.
  • Don’t be a speed demon: The greatest enemy of brakes is high speed. The higher your speed, the more energy and brake material it takes for your vehicle’s braking system to stop the car. It is recommended that you travel within the speed limit advised by agencies such as the Federal Road Safety Corps.



I am a passionate mum that believes in equal rights for all Humanity.

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