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Do You Know What to Do When Your Brakes Fail?

Picture yourself driving to your office. You didn't hear your alarm clock, so you try to make up for lost time by subtly accelerating along back roads. You know the road turns sharply several kilometres ahead, and you wisely decide to decrease your speed in preparation.

But when your foot hits the brake pedal, nothing happens. The car continues to hurtle along the road at high speeds, and your heart races along even faster. For a few brief seconds, you wonder if this is how you'll die.

Don't panic just yet.

Although complete brake failure rarely occurs, you can take steps to slow your vehicle to a safe, albeit bumpy stop.

1. Take Your Foot Off the Accelerator

When your flight or fight senses kick in, you may stiffen, tense and put more pressure on your accelerator pedal, increasing your speed and your risk of injury.

If you drive a car with automatic transmission, remove your foot from the accelerator. As a result, your vehicle will gradually shift into lower gears and slow on its own. If you own a vehicle with manual transmission, carefully shift into the lowest gears. Avoid shifting too quickly, as you could send your car into a skid.

Warning:  Do not shift your car into neutral, as you will lose the engine's braking effect. Similarly, you should not force shift the car into park or reverse, as you could damage your transmission and cause the vehicle to stall. And finally, do not turn off your car, as you'll lose the ability to steer.

2. Try the Brakes Again

Most modern cars have a dual braking system, or tandem master cylinders that stop one half of the vehicle. Should half your brakes fail, you can still rely on the other half to bring your car to a complete stop.

Of course, when you drive a 1,800 kilogram vehicle at high speeds, you'll need a lot more time to halt your momentum. And what little braking system you have left may seem incapable of stopping your vehicle in time for that sharp curve or looming traffic light.

To make the most of your available brakes, apply strong, consistent pressure to the pedal. The anti-lock braking system (ABS) will pump the brakes for you, creating a heavy pulse. 

You may also try your emergency brake lever or pedal to further slow your vehicle. But be prepared to release the emergency brakes should your car start to skid. 

3. Move Away from Traffic

If your emergency brakes and downshifting didn't work, you not only pose a risk to yourself but to others. As soon as you notice a problem, turn on your emergency lights to alert other drivers of the danger. Then, if possible, change lanes and move away from traffic.

Even during an emergency, remember to use your turn signals and to pay attention to surrounding traffic. Steer away from potholes and other road obstacles to avoid skidding.

4. Use Your Environment as Friction

Over time, your car should come to a stop on its own so long as you keep your foot off the accelerator. But if you need to stop faster, use friction from your surroundings.

If necessary, grind the car against guardrails, fences and hedges. Drive your vehicle up hills and inclines or into tall grasses and sand. Keep a firm grip on the steering wheel as you look for a safe spot to pull over (or to crash).

Prevent Accidents: Inspect Your Brakes Regularly

Although the above steps will help you stay as calm and safe as possible during an emergency, ideally, you want to avoid the situation entirely. Consequently, you should take your vehicle to brake specialist for inspection and repairs on an annual basis. And if you ever notice any of  these five warning signs , book an appointment with your mechanic immediately.  

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