What to Do If Your Brakes Fail While Driving

If your car brakes fail, remain calm, use your emergency brake, downshift, and carefully steer your car to the side of the road.
Written by Andrea Barrett
Reviewed by Jessica Barrett
Updated on Oct 24, 2022
If your car brakes fail when you’re on the road, don’t panic. Try braking again, and if that doesn’t work, use your emergency brake, downshift to a lower gear, and then carefully steer your car to the side of the road or another safe place.
For many people, driving is a monotonous task that allows you to enter a hypnotic state. We’re so used to tracing the same steps day in and day out, that we forget driving can be a dangerous activity—especially if you’re not fully engaged and present. But nothing snaps you back into reality faster than pressing the brakes and not feeling your car slow. 
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What should you do if your brakes fail?

If you’ve never experienced brake failure, the thought of it happening probably hasn’t crossed your mind. But if you have, you know how important it is to be able to make a split-second decision. In any case, you can never be over-prepared. Commit the following steps to memory.

Remain calm

With the loss of braking power, panic is probably the only thing crossing your mind. You’re scared, frustrated, and have no idea what to do. But it’s in your best interest—and those of the drivers around you—to remain calm, breathe deeply, and keep your mind clear and focused.

Try braking again

If you step on your brakes and they don’t work, try again. Most newer cars have a dual braking system that independently controls the front and rear wheels’ brake systems. That means for both systems to stop working, both halves would have to fail. 
Sometimes pumping the brakes fast and hard can cause brake fluid pressure to build up and wake up your brakes. Once you build up pressure, firmly press the brakes again. The emergency or parking brake is your backup if the brakes still don't engage.

Use your emergency brake

If your main braking system has failed, the other option is to employ the parking or emergency brake gently. The emergency brake system is separate from the regular brakes (the hydraulic brake system) and may be able to slow or stop the vehicle. Remember that engaging the emergency brake too hard or fast can cause you to skid and lose control of your car.

Downshift to a lower gear

An alternative way to slow and stop your car is to remove your foot from the gas pedal or downshift to engage engine braking. If your vehicle has a manual transmission, work your way down through the gears until your car slows. 
Removing your foot from the accelerator should slow your vehicle or bring it to a complete stop if you have an automatic transmission. However, if you have a newer automatic car with paddle shifters, consider switching to manual mode and slowly downshifting to the lowest gear. 

Carefully steer your car to the side of the road

When your car has slowed, navigate off the road and stop your vehicle in a safe place to minimize the risk of getting hit. If you're on the highway or a busy road, concentrate on getting your car into the far right lane or on the shoulder.
Control your steering wheel, use your indicators, and be aware of the traffic around you. Once you’re in the slow lane, turn on your hazard lights to indicate a problem.

Call for help

Once you safely pull over, let people know you need help. Call your local mechanic, tow truck, or roadside assistance if you have a phone. If you cannot call for help, signal to passing vehicles that you need assistance. If you have reflective triangles or road flares in your vehicle, use them to increase visibility, especially if it’s dark. For your safety, avoid standing next to or behind your vehicle.

Brake failure warning signs

While driving safely is half the battle on the road, knowing the signs of a brake failure can help you stay clear of trouble. Here are seven common signs and symptoms of faulty or unsafe brakes: 
  1. Brake light is on
  2. Squeaking or grinding noises
  3. Vibration during braking
  4. Fluid leakage
  5. “Soft” brake pedal upon pressure application
  6. Burning smell

How to prevent brake failure

Now that you know what to do if your brakes fail while driving, you’re probably wondering how you can prevent it in the first place. The answer is simple: stay on top of car maintenance.
Regularly scheduled maintenance
is the most important factor in keeping your car running optimally and avoiding issues. 
For brakes, having them serviced after a specific number of miles is the best way to ensure they’re working correctly. But it’s also important to pay attention to how your car drives. If you feel or hear sounds that aren’t normal, take your car to a mechanic and have it checked. And keep an eye on the lights on your dashboard—if your brake
warning light is on
, it’s generally an indication that something is not right. 
Practicing defensive driving is a good idea to ensure that if something does happen, you’re far enough away from the vehicle in front to avoid a collision. 
If you have anti-lock brakes, consider practicing sudden stops in different weather conditions in a safe off-street location. This will help instill confidence and ensure you know what to do if your brakes fail during driving. 

How to find cheap car insurance (with roadside assistance!)

Running into an issue while you’re on the road is never ideal, especially loss of braking power. It’s scary and stressful, plus the financial consequences can be enough to send you over the edge. 
Rather than shelling out an arm and a leg to get your vehicle towed and repaired, consider upgrading your car insurance policy to include roadside assistance,
towing and labor coverage
, or
collision coverage
to stay safe on the road.
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