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How to safely stop your car if your brakes fail

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Updated 25 Mar 2021

Rowan Johnstone

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Alright, you’re driving along, as you do every day, and you spot a light turn red just up the road. No dramas, a red light, you’ve done this thousands of times! You take your foot off the accelerator and place it on the brake to start bringing your car to a gentle stop. Nothing happens. You press a little harder, but still nothing. You’re now pressing the brake pedal to the floor but your car isn’t stopping. Yep, you’re experiencing brake failure.

Now hopefully, none of us will ever have to experience this situation. It’s dangerous, stressful and pretty scary. But, what if you’re one of the unlucky ones who does, and you’re not prepared to handle it?

In this article, we’ll explain the steps you need to take to safely stop your car if your brakes fail.


How do you know if your brakes need replacing?

1. Downshift

If you’ve just hit the brakes and nothing has happened, there is another way to slow down your car. Grab the gear stick and shift down a gear. This can be down in any car, regardless of whether it’s manual or auto. In a manual, downshift as you normally would. Try not to skip gears, as you might lock the wheels. In an automatic, you should be able to manually select your gears with the gear shifter or paddle shifters in what is referred to as a ‘sport’ mode or ‘sequential’ mode, which allows you to be in control of what gear your car is in and change them on the fly, without the car's computer taking over. This mode can be activated differently depending on what car you’re driving, but it all works the same. We definitely recommend reading your user manual to find out how this works in your car.

Downshifting your car will engage what is called engine braking, which restricts airflow and causes a vacuum inside the engine, which provides some resistance to your cylinders. This, in turn, slows the speed of the engine and will slow the car down.

2. Avoid neutral

Regardless of whether you’re driving a manual or auto, avoid putting your car into neutral. This will remove all engine braking and allow your car to travel forwards freely. Also, if you do find yourself in neutral and try to go straight from neutral into a gear that’s too slow for the speed you’re travelling, it may cause your wheels to lock up, and end up in you losing control of the car.

3. Use the handbrake, emergency brake, e-brake, whatever it’s called

Important! Make sure you are travelling at a low enough speed before using the handbrake! This may mean you have to coast for a bit before applying it, but a handbrake will be able to bring your car to a complete stop, without skidding the back wheels, if you are travelling slow enough. Remember, don’t yank on the handbrake as hard as possible, gently pull it up until you feel the car slowing. Pulling it up too quickly will cause the rear wheels to lock.

4. Avoid steering

To an extent. Yes, you’re going to have to steer in order to avoid things, but avoid sharp or sudden steering so that you don’t lose control of the car. Gentle steering inputs will allow you to safely stop and remain in control.

Whilst brake failure can sometimes be unavoidable due to a fault, getting your brake system checked regularly will go a long way in preventing it from happening to you. If you feel like your brakes are due for a check, use AutoGuru to quickly and easily book in with a local brake specialist.

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Written By

Rowan Johnstone

On weekdays Rowan can be found in the AutoGuru office, driving content and growth with the rest of the marketing team.

On weekends you’ll probably find him in the garage with his dad restoring a 1958 Ford Star Model Customline or enjoying a cruise through the Gold Coast hinterland on his Suzuki GSX-R600.

Despite his passion for being behind the wheel (or handlebars), he looks forward to the day when he can commute to work in his own driverless car.