Depending on what vehicle you are driving and the type of road you are driving on, you have a number of options if your brakes stop working while you’re driving.
They could stop working because of brake fade, you’ve driven through water, or a mechanical issue. If you lose your brake fluid, the brake warning light will appear on your dashboard.
Sudden brake failure is extremely unlikely. Even if your power-assisted brakes fail, you can still usually apply braking power by pressing harder on the brake pedal.Get out of the way of other traffic
Other traffic needs to know what you are doing, so your indication is important. If you need to move to the left off the road or across lanes, signal left and try to move into a gap. On a motorway with a hard shoulder, try to get to the hard shoulder as there is less likely to be anything in it for you to hit as you slow down.
Pump the brakes
If the pedal goes to the floor, pump it a few times then push it to the floor. There might not be much braking, but anything is better than nothing.
If the pedal feels rigid, is there anything lodged underneath it, like your floor mat?
Give clear signals
Putting your hazard warning lights on will let other drivers know you are experiencing difficulties. Use your horn.
Use your gears
Lower gears provide more engine and mechanical resistance – this is called engine braking. Be careful not to over-rev the engine, though. You may need to step down through your gears as you lose speed. In a car with a manual gearbox, this is straightfoward. In a car with an automatic gearbox you might have an L setting, or you could have sequential-style gears where you can change down with paddles behind the steering wheel, or a gear lever. Simply keep changing down a gear every time the revs drop to a couple of thousand below the red line.
Engine braking will reduce your speed to 5-10km/h but no more – your car will continue to creep forward.
Don’t put your car into reverse while you are going forwards because you risk causing a huge amount of damage to your gearbox.
Turn on the air conditioning and accessories
The air conditioner should be turned onto the coldest setting with the highest fan speed. This will absorb a couple of kilowatts of power. Turning on all accessories, such as the heated rear window and your lights, will also create some drag on the alternator.
Use the handbrake
Don’t pull the handbrake on at high speed because you risk spinning out. There’s also the risk that it could overheat and become ineffective. Wait until engine braking has dropped your speed to below around 20km/h, then pull the handbrake on gradually. The handbrake only works on the rear wheels and if they skid you could lose control, so be careful.
Use kerbs and the edge of the road
Gently running your wheels against the kerb won’t do wonders for your tyres or alloy wheels, but it will create extra friction. The same applies for concrete dividing barriers on motorways.
Grass verges will create more resistance, but they will increase your risk of spinning out.
Hedges and bushes will damage your paintwork, but have been used before in an emergency.
Things not to do if your brakes fail
- Don’t put your gearbox into neutral or you’ll have no engine braking.
- Don’t put your gearbox into reverse unless you want it to be converted to thousands of tiny metal shards (and you’ll have no engine braking).
- Don’t weave from side-to-side at high speed. Yes, it creates more friction, but you risk spinning out, and if your brakes have failed, any electronic stability control measures (which work by braking individual wheels) might not work. At low speed, it’s probably fine.
- Don’t stop the engine – you’ll lose your power steering