How to Stop a Car with No Brakes

Imagine you’re exiting the freeway on that killer ramp with the steep grade and the hairpin turn. You try the brakes and… nothing happens. Careening toward the guardrail at 75 mph (121 km/h), you brace yourself for a 400-foot dive into a shallow lake full of fire-breathing alligators.

Okay, that scenario is a bit unlikely, but the fact is that brake failure is a terrifying — and dangerous — experience no matter where it occurs. To learn how to stop a car if the brakes fail, read the following instructions.


1: Don’t panic!
Overreacting to this situation will only make it more dangerous.

2: Take your foot off the gas and turn off cruise control (if on). Cruise control systems should turn off as soon as you touch the brake or clutch, but to be safe, make sure it’s switched off.

3: Pay attention to how your brake pedal feels.
If it’s soft and goes to the floor, you may have low fluid, a faulty master cylinder or problems with your drums or calipers. You may be able to rebuild some braking pressure by pumping the brakes.
If, however, your brake pedal is hard and does not move, something in your brake system may have seized or you may have an obstruction under the pedal. Try to feel with your foot (or have a passenger look) to see whether you have something under the brake pedal.


4:Pump your brakes. Pumping your brakes several times may rebuild enough
pressure in the braking system for you to stop. This may take a while, so keep trying. You should do this even if your car is equipped with ABS, as the ABS is only activated when your car is braking too hard (which won’t be the problem if your brakes have failed). Then, regardless of whether the car has ABS brakes or not, quickly squeeze the brakes down to the floor to make the most out of all of the pressure you have preserved or built-up, as hydraulic (or air) brakes rarely fail all together. Keep the brakes squeezed to the floor.

5: Shift into low gear. Shifting into lower gears helps slow you by using your engine to slow the car. If you have an automatic transmission, downshift a gear at a time into low range (generally labeled as “1” on the shifting mechanism). If you have a manual transmission, downshift a gear or two at a time, feel the car slow, and repeat as you work down through the gears. Unless you need to slow the car as soon as possible, be careful not to downshift too quickly; rapid downshifts into first or second gear can cause you to lose control.
If you have tap-to-shift, shift into manual “M” (generally to the right or left of “Drive” on console-shift vehicles or the bottom gear on column-shift vehicles) and press the minus button to shift down. Again, if you can’t go directly into the lowest range, try gradually shifting down.
If you have an additional means of slowing down the car, like a retarder, exhaust brake, or Jake brake, use it slowly.

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