What to do if you have a brake failure

Previously we’ve covered why and how you should check the brake fluid on your car. Another important issue to consider, however, is what to do if the brakes fail?

Because of a particular fault or general wear from usage, the brakes on a driver’s vehicle can stop working. Wherever it might occur, a brake failure is a scary and dangerous prospect. If this ever happens to you though, then there are certain steps you can take to stop the car in a safe as possible manner.

Identifying a brake failure

When driving your car you can quickly identify that there might be something wrong with your brakes based on the feel of the brake pedal.

While on the move the brake pedal should feel firm, but if instead feels spongy or slack then this could mean the brake fluid is leaking. In this scenario the brakes will have to little to no effect in stopping your vehicle and they won’t get any better until they are repaired.

This issue with the brake pedal can also be caused by a faulty master cylinder or problems with your brake drums or calipers.

You can also possibly identify a braking problem by the symbols on your dashboard. The red brake warning light is not just there to tell whether the handbrake/parking brake is applied or not. If you see this symbol on your car’s dashboard while driving or applying the brakes, this could mean a problem has been identified, likely caused by a fluid leak.

If when trying to use the brake pedal it does not move then this could mean something in the brake system has seized. Alternatively there could be something obstructing the pedal, try to feel with your foot or get a passenger to check if something has gone under the brake pedal.

Stopping the car safely

If you know your brakes have failed while driving then you should pull over and stop your car as soon as possible, but in a sensible and safe manner of course.

Lift your foot off the accelerator (gas) pedal and turn your hazard lights on to make other drivers and any pedestrians aware you have a problem.

Depending on what kind of road you’re on there are multiple methods you can utilise to slow your car down quicker without creating more danger.

For example, pumping your brake several times may rebuild enough pressure in the braking system to get you to stop. This is worth trying whether or not your cars have anti-lock brakes (ABS).

Shifting into lower gears will also cause the engine to slow your vehicle down. If you have a manual transmission work your way down one or two gears at a time as the car progressively slows. If your car has an automatic gearbox instead, like the Ford Powershift transmission for example, downshift a gear at a time into low range, which is typically labelled as "1" on the shifting mechanism.

Take care not to shift down to the low gears too quickly as this can cause you to lose control of the car. If your car uses an automatic gearbox don’t attempt to switch to the park pawl before you’ve stopped moving, otherwise it will be ineffective.

You can also try using your handbrake to slow down the car but this only works on the rear wheels and it can cause problems if you’re going too fast. If you feel or hear your tyres lock when using the handbrake, then release a small bit of pressure from it.

If you have the space, steer your vehicle sharply from side-to-side to naturally slow the car more. Keep your eyes on the road to avoid any potential collisions as best you can. At the same time look out for somewhere to pull over or anything else that could slow your vehicle down, in a reasonably safe manner. When the car is stopped contact your breakdown service provider or use the nearest emergency telephone if you have to stop on the motorway.

What can I do to minimise the risk of failure?

There are a huge variety of braking techniques on our roads and some of them are less than ideal. Whether it’s through lack of concentration, bad habits or desperately trying to save time on their journeys, people are trying all sorts of braking tactics.

Braking too early, too late, too suddenly or even not at all can create real problems on the roads. Poor or unusual braking not only makes driving stressful for other motorists but is responsible for a lot of accidents.

This is all before you think of the damage bad braking can do to a car. If they are used too harshly, brake pads can wear out quicker than expected, putting drivers at risk of serious brake failure if they haven’t had them regularly checked.


Taking care of the conditions of your brakes, as well as how you use them, means in most instances you’ll avoid any brake failures altogether.