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.


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    Don't panic! Overreacting to this situation will only make it more dangerous.
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    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.
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    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.
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    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.
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    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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    Use the emergency brake. The emergency brake, or parking brake, can usually stop a vehicle, although it will take longer than usual to come to a stop because it only stops the rear wheels. Apply the brake (depending on your vehicle this is done either by pulling up on the handle or pushing down on the pedal) slowly and steadily; your emergency brake can lock your tire if applied too hard or too fast, especially at high speed. If you pull up the brake quickly, you may lose control of your vehicle. To prevent this, keep the release button engaged (if your car has one) as you apply the emergency brake. This allows you to modulate the pressure with which you are applying the brake.
    • If you feel or hear your tires lock, release a small bit of pressure from the brake application and hold it there. It should be stated that if the tires do squeal slightly, it does not necessarily mean that they are indeed locked-up. With a handlebar E-brake, one can initially apply it up to three clicks (to enable a controlled slow-down) and then apply an additional one or two extra clicks (to bring the car to a final halt).
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    Keep your eyes on the road and continue to steer. Pay attention to what’s in front of you, and maneuver to avoid heavy traffic, pedestrians, and dangerous obstacles.
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    Warn other drivers and pedestrians. Turn your hazard lights on, and honk your horn to make others aware that there is a problem. (Be sure to know the location of the hazard light button prior to such a situation.) While they may not be able to figure out what the problem is, a warning should cause most people to proceed with caution and pay attention to what your vehicle is doing. Open windows to allow air resistance to slow you down as well as enable you to shout to other passengers and drivers.
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    If you have room on either side of you, steer sharply from side-to-side. Turning creates friction, which slows your car naturally. If you do not have brakes, try turning sharply from left to right over and over to slow your car down. Do not do this at high speeds. Turning at high speeds may flip your car and turning too sharply at any speed can spin your car around, so be careful.
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    Use your surroundings to slow the vehicle. If the above measures fail to stop you, or if you must stop very quickly, do whatever you can to get under control. Ideally, you could use a runaway truck ramp, but as these are not particularly common, you’ll probably have to improvise. Keep in mind, however, that these techniques can be very dangerous – especially at high speeds – and should only be used as last resorts.
    • Use terrain to your advantage. Try to seek out inclines that you can go up. If this does not bring your car to a stop, be prepared to do some reverse driving and/or use the emergency brake at the appropriate time.
    • Use guardrails to slow your vehicle. Cement dividers are built pear-shaped so that contact is made with the wheels, not with the precious metal and paint of your automobile. Applying friction to the rubber on your wheels will slow the car considerably without harming other portions of your vehicle. You can also gently sideswipe whatever is available.
    • Use road friction to slow your vehicle. Driving through gravel or dirt (such as you might find right off the side of the road) can slow your vehicle considerably. Be very cautious when using this technique. Sudden terrain changes -- especially if only under the wheels on one side of the car -- can cause the car to flip, and may cause serious injury or death to yourself or others. Approach to a graveled or grassy shoulder must be made progressively, smoothly and gently. Afterward, the car must be stabilized as it is driving along the shoulder of the road.
    • Small trees and shrubbery will slow your vehicle when all else fails. Try to put your vehicle through the center of a line of shrubs or saplings, being careful not to pick a tree that is too heavy for your car to go through. Trees with trunks over 4 inches (116 mm) are considered dangerous to occupants of motor vehicles. Large trees can be fatal.
    • Hit the back of another car. While obviously not a first choice, it will slow your vehicle. If you’re going to do so, try to warn the driver in front of you by honking your horn. Try to strike a vehicle that is traveling at about the same speed as yours (hitting a slow-moving or parked car will stop you, but the deceleration will be quick and extreme) and attempt to make impact squarely on the back of the vehicle. Glancing blows will likely send both vehicles out of control. Be extremely careful not to hit too hard as your airbag may go off.
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    Look for a safe spot to pull over (or to crash). Scan the road ahead for a safe area to pull over once you’re able to come to a stop. If you’re not able to bring the vehicle to a complete stop, look for open spaces that you can coast across without hitting anything.
    • If all alternatives have failed, plan a crash stop. The safest method is to look for a bushy protrusions or shrubs and run it through the friction will significantly reduce car speed to a halt. if there are no bushes go for grass, especially tall grass run the car through the tall grass and it will come to a halt. finally if there is none the last way is go for sand, sand is so unstable will definitely halt your car, especially wet sand.
    • If the safest spot to "crash land" your vehicle requires you to jump a curb, extra caution must be taken. Even with power steering, the cars' initial reaction will be to rip the steering wheel from your hands, bounce from the curb and back into traffic. It is imperative that you grip the steering wheel in a firm manner and angle your car deep enough into the curb so that it will go up and over, yet shallow enough so that you don't turn the car completely and lose control in a spin.


  • You can avoid most instances of brake failure by regularly checking your brake fluid and changing it according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. You should also have your entire brake system inspected at regular intervals or if you notice any change in the performance of your brakes. Don’t put off making necessary repairs or performing routine maintenance.
  • That red "brake light" comes on for a lot of reasons, not just to tell you that your parking brake is engaged. Every time you start the car, see if it flashes to make sure it's working. If it comes on while you're driving, you've lost at least half of your braking system. If it comes on while you're applying the brakes, you have a problem – most likely low brake fluid or a faulty master cylinder.
  • Do not shift an automatic transmission into park when moving. The parking pawl that binds the transmission will not be able to support a moving car.
  • Brakes can become less effective if they get wet, especially after hydroplaning or going through deeper water. When going into such water, it's best to apply light acceleration or even downshift. Once exiting the water or recovering from a hydroplaning incident, press the brakes down moderately lightly, release, wait, and reapply (but do not pump). This will help you feel whether the pedal is spongy and soft, in which case a few more times reapplying the brakes in that manner should dry them.
  • If the engine won't slow down, reduce its ability to transfer power to the wheels. Point the car where it can coast to a stop as safely as possible. Shift into neutral (this may over-rev and damage the engine or transmission, but you have bigger problems).
  • Downshift when driving downhill. Avoid "riding the brakes" when going down a prolonged incline, as overuse of your brakes will cause them to overheat and fail. Instead, brake enough to slow the vehicle significantly, coast for a time, and repeat. If necessary, make another downshift.
    • If the brakes do heat up, use more engine braking and less foot-brake pressure to slow the car down, stop it gently with the emergency brake, and let off of the brakes all together. Do not try cooling the brakes with water, as you may warp the rotors.
  • Many "brake failure" cases are brought about by an object getting stuck under the brake pedal, such as a toy or a soda bottle. Avoid this situation by keeping your car clean and free of debris, especially the area around the driver’s seat. Cups and bottles used in the car should be of fragile, disposable material and not capped (loose cup covers are fine) when anywhere near the driver; this will help them to crush harmlessly if they get under a pedal somehow. Mitigate the increased risk of mess with drinks that are clear or light-colored, free of milk, and/or sweetened only with artificial sweeteners.


  • Once you manage to stop the vehicle, do not attempt to drive it again until you are sure the problem is fixed.
  • Sudden down-shifts may damage your transmission. This is especially true if you manage to shift in reverse. That said, you must do what is necessary to stop the vehicle.
  • Do not shut the engine off during a brake failure, as power steering systems are hydraulically driven, and regulated by engine vacuum, as is the brake booster. If you do panic and shut the engine off, hydraulic systems typically give you three more power-assisted pumps. Turn the key to the second position (accessories) so the steering wheel doesn't lock.

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