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How to Stop an Automatic Car if the Brakes Fail

Sudden braking in the car to avoid collision

Brake failure is one of the scariest things that can happen when you’re behind the wheel. Just like anything else in life, a little bit of planning and understanding can make a huge difference.

Since your brakes aren’t working, you’ll have to rely on other ways to provide friction and slow you down. Ideally, you could scrape your car against something to slow down while pumping the brake pedal. Make sure you’re constantly looking around and assessing your situation in order to have the best results. Put your car in “L” gear, turn on the hazard lights, and honk your horn to get other drivers out of your way while you slow down.

If you ever find yourself in an automatic car that’s suffering brake failure, remember this guide. I’m going to talk about why it’s so dangerous, some things to consider, 5 emergency options, and a few things to avoid altogether. By the end of this guide, you should know how to survive brake failure.

What Does it Mean for the Brakes to Fail?

Your brakes utilize a few mechanical components. Together, they’re used to slow down and stop your car. When you press the brake pedal, brake fluid goes through lines, activates your brake pads, squeezes them against your rotors, then slows down your vehicle for as long as you apply the pedal.

When the brakes fail, something in this assembly isn’t working correctly. More often than not, it’s the fluid in the line. Since the fluid isn’t moving correctly, your pads aren’t squeezing the rotors which means you’re not slowing down at all.

If you’re experiencing brake failure, then your car’s speed will not change even if you stomp on the brake pedal.

Automotive braking system infographic illustration diagram
Automotive braking system

The Danger Behind Brake Failure

Before getting too far, I want to highlight how dangerous brake failure is. I’ve only experienced it once and it’s a memory that’s burned into my brain.

When your brakes fail, you have no reliable way to slow down or stop. This becomes a huge issue as you approach intersections, an upcoming traffic jam, or turns in the road. Take a second to think about how often you use your brake pads every time you drive.

Without brakes, you’re inevitably bound to run into something. At the very least, you’ll get a speeding ticket for not slowing down as the limit decreases — of course, you’ll also get a charge for evading a police officer since you can’t stop for the police.

If your brakes fail, then you could roll into an intersection and get hit. The damage could be fatal and will likely total your car.

Vehicle almost getting into a car accident and braking suddenly with a car visible in front at the intersection

It’s “Easier” with a Manual Transmission

You’ll notice that I’m talking about automatic cars in this guide. Why am I even specifying the transmission type? Well, with manual transmissions it’s a little bit easier. You can downshift through gears and force your engine to slow down.

With an automatic, you don’t have this same ability.

Steps to Stop an Automatic Car When the Brakes Fail

Since you’re in an automatic, you’ll want to use this section. I’m about to outline some common steps that can be used to slow your car to a halt even if the brakes failed.

Assess the Situation

Before anything else, you need to understand what you’re dealing with. Does your power steering still work? Do you have any brake power at all? How fast are you going? How busy in the street around you? Are you approaching stopped traffic?

All of these questions will better guide you through the rest of this process. I’ll be very honest: this situation is going to happen very quickly, and you might even black out during it and just perform knee-jerk reactions the whole time.

That’s perfectly fine. The goal is to keep you alive during this. Keep your eyes moving around and constantly collecting data so you know how to react.

Emergency brake assist illustration to show driver or computer assessing the road situation

Try to Stay Calm

I’ll write this out, but I know that it’s impossible to do. You should try to stay calm during the process. I say “try” because your initial reaction will likely be to panic.

If you can keep slightly calm, then you can react better and understand what to do.

Turn on Your Hazards

Before trying any solutions, you should throw on your hazards. This is a good indicator to drivers nearby that something’s wrong with your car. Ideally, drivers will avoid you and give you some space.

For reference, the hazards are the yellow blinking lights at the rear and front of your car. They’re triggered by pressing a red button somewhere in the cabin of your car, typically near the air vents.

Person pressing the emergency hazard button on the dashboard of the car with his finger

Honk Your Horn

Another way to get people’s attention and get them out of your way is to honk your horn the whole time.

The goal is to alert people to your car. When used in junction with the hazards, it’s a good indicator that something is going on.

At the very least, people will think you’re crazy and stay away from you.

Get Off the Gas Pedal

If your brakes aren’t working, make sure you’re not accidentally pressing the gas pedal. Obviously, this will accelerate you and make things much worse.

To double-check, look down at your feet and make sure the pedal on the right is untouched and not stuck on anything.

I had a problem in the past where my floormat got stuck on the accelerator when I pushed it down. I pressed the brakes, and nothing happened (because the car was basically floored). I thought my brakes failed, but then I glanced down and realized the gas pedal was stuck.

I ripped the floormat away, the gas pedal was released, and then I was back on my way after briefly stopping for a mini heart attack and also to throw the floormat in the nearby dumpster.

In these split seconds of panic, it’s possible that you can mistake a pushed gas pedal for a failed brake pedal.

Driver of the car releasing the gas accelerator pedal and switching the foot over to press the brake pedal

Turn Off Cruise Control

Another reason why your car won’t slow down is that the cruise control is on. With cruise control, your car will automatically accelerate when your feet are off the pedals. Check your dashboard and make sure you don’t see the cruise control emblem.

Keep Pumping the Brake Pedal

Now that you’ve ruled out some possible culprits, it’s time to react to your car’s failed brakes. As I mentioned earlier, there are different levels of brake failure. It’s uncommon for your lines to completely drain leaving you with no brakes at all (unless you’re driving a project car or prototype).

There’s probably a little bit of brake power in your car. This can save the day.

Keep pumping your brake pedal. This means that you firmly push down on the pedal until it’s fully pressed in, then release it fully and repeat the process. Doing this will squeeze out any brake power that your car has.

Person pressing the car brake pedal with a long distance of travel before brakes begin to apply needing brake flush

Put it in “L” Gear

While pumping the brakes, you’ll also want to lower the gear. I mentioned earlier that this is “easier” with a car that has a “manual transmission” because you can downshift as you decelerate. With an automatic car, you’ll need to utilize the “L” gear, or similar.

This gear is typically used at low speeds when you want to haul something heavy or deal with icy conditions. It’s a way to force your car into a lower gear. This will maximize your torque and minimize your speed.

In this case, the lower gear will force your engine to slow down and act as a makeshift brake to slow you down.

Close up of an automatic gear shift knob showing PRNDL

Keep Looking Ahead

Even as you do these different tasks, your main focus should be on the road ahead of you. It all goes back to the first step of assessing your situation. You might notice an empty lane that will let you get more space to slow down.

As long as you’re looking ahead, you’ll have the best chance of coming to a full stop safely.

Last-Ditch Efforts to Stop Your Car (5 Emergency Options)

So what happens when everything else is failing and your car’s brakes still aren’t working? You’ll need to try some last-ditch, emergency options to stop.

Prioritize Your Life

Above everything else, you want to make sure that you stay alive during this. That might mean totaling your brand-new car, but it’s absolutely worth it. A car can be rebought, but your life can’t come back.

I mention this because there are going to be some compromises in this section. It might mean choosing between hitting a tree or trying to get through a busy intersection without your brakes.

If you look at these two options, which is more likely to save you? I would assume the stationary tree, not the potentially fast-moving cars going through the intersection.

Car accident involving a Honda Civic and a small pickup truck

Gently Apply the Handbrake

When you slow down enough, you can start utilizing your handbrake. This only works at lower speeds, and it only works with emergency brakes that are manual. I’ve been in a lot of cars that have pneumatic or electrically-controlled handbrakes. Doing this will lock your wheels and put you in even more danger.

With a manual handbrake, you want to very slowly apply it. I’ve heard stories of people pulling the handbrake too fast and their car spins out of control and even risks flipping over.

Why does that happen? It’s all a matter of physics. The handbrake will apply a brake to your tires in an effort to lock your tires in place (which is why you use an emergency brake when you park on a hill).

If you’re moving at full speed and your front tires are suddenly held firmly, your back tires are moving too fast and you have a shift in your momentum. Theoretically, it makes sense that your car can flip over since there’s much more energy in the back half of your vehicle.

I would suggest very slightly pulling up on the handbrake and seeing how your car responds.

Person pulling the emergency manual handbrake lever to stop the car

Scrape Your Way to a Stop

A more guaranteed way to slow down is to use friction. This is one of those methods that will do serious damage to your car but should dramatically increase your likelihood of surviving.

You might scrape your tires against the curb, or drive the side of your car against a barrier or guardrail.

Friction is the science behind why you stop in the first place. Since your brakes aren’t applying the friction you need, you can look for it elsewhere.

When your car grinds against something, there’s a lot of force pushing against your direction of travel. If you are rolling forward out of control and you start scraping against a median wall, the wall will start pushing backward. As a result, you’ll start going slower.

If you don’t have a passenger, the preference would be to scrape along your passenger side. This will make it easier for you to get out of the car after.

I’ve heard stories of people who first scrape their way to slow down and then use the parking brake to come to a complete stop. It’s viable to combine multiple efforts to get the best results.

Close up of the metal crash barrier fence on the interstate traffic highway for safety with reflectors visible along the road

Go Off-Roading

This option is riskier, and I contemplated not adding it. However, it’s ultimately the method I used when my brakes failed when I was a teen.

How does it work? If you are driving in a rural area like I was, then you can look to the side of the road for a field that doesn’t have a culvert (a ditch between the road and the field).

I had a little sedan and I drove it off the road and onto the field. Grass and mud have a much higher friction coefficient than asphalt roads do. What does that mean? They have much more “stopping power”, so you’ll slow down a lot quicker.

There are a few things to look out for:

  • You don’t want obstacles in the field
  • You want a large, flat area
  • Try to avoid farmland since they tend to have a lot of hills and hidden equipment
  • Definitely avoid fields with animals in them
  • Only commit if you’re confident that this field is the right option

It’s also worth mentioning that you’ll need to do this with all four wheels, so you’ll need to fully commit. If you just ride a grassy shoulder with two wheels, your car will want to aggressively pull to that side, and you might spin out.

Ohio country road

Use Something Big to Stop You

The final option involves forcing yourself to a hard stop, but choosing what you run into. This is more likely to happen in busy areas. The best example I can think of is a highway during rush hour near an intersection.

Instead of rolling through the intersection and hoping that no one comes through and slams into you, you can choose a big object to crash into ahead of time.

This might mean driving into a tree or pole instead of driving into oncoming traffic. You want to maximize the total speed of all objects included in the crash. If a car is driving into you, its speed gets multiplied by your speed to determine the overall force of the crash.

Since a tree is stationary, only your speed will be used in the equation. To spare you all the math that goes into it, just recognize that hitting a stationary object or rear-ending a car going the same direction as you are the ideal choices.

The other caveat is making sure you’re not going too fast for this option. If you’re driving over 50 mph, crashing into a tree or pole can be just as fatal as driving through the intersection.

Close up of a car hitting a pole near a wall

Some Things NOT to Do

To better prepare you, I also put together this quick list of things that you SHOULDN’T do while driving a car that is experiencing brake failure.

Don’t Swerve/ Weave on the Road

It’s true that weaving on the road results in more friction in theory and can slow your car down. However, it’s not practical in real life. You’ll likely wind up losing control, overcorrecting, and then slamming into a car if you try this method.

Keep your car straight and commit to gradual turns. You likely don’t know what your car will do if you try to turn the wheel sharply while driving 60 mph.

Car leaving tire skid marks indicting the car was swerving

Don’t Worry About Calling the Police While Driving

Some people recommend calling the police for help while you’re trying to slow down your car. In almost every case, it’s a major distraction that doesn’t actually help you. There’s a very slim chance that a police officer can find you on the road and somehow slow you down any safer than you can do yourself.

Keep the phone down, and keep your eyes on the road. Focus on slowing yourself down, not trying to get a police officer to do it for you.

Don’t Swap into the Oncoming Lane

It might seem tempting to switch into the oncoming traffic lane if it’s unoccupied, but I highly suggest against doing that. All it takes is one distracted driver that you didn’t spot, and you could be part of a fatal head-on collision.

Stick to your side of the road so drivers will react more predictably.

Car traveling on an empty road with lane markers visible

Don’t Drive into Gravel

If the shoulder of the road is gravel, avoid it like the plague. Gravel tends to make cars react uncontrollably. You can spin out, roll your car, or make things even worse for you. Avoid gravel and aim for grass, sand, or mud if you’re using the “off-roading” method I mentioned earlier.

Don’t Turn Your Car Off

Some people might think that turning your car off is the best option. They think it’s an emergency override that stops your car.

The opposite is actually true. Instead, your power steering turns off, so you completely lose steering control as well as brake control. Suddenly, you’re on a direct course into what’s in front of you, and you can’t steer away.

Conclusion

Now you better understand what happens during brake failure in an automatic car. As I mentioned a few times, the priority is to survive the brake failure, and avoiding damage to your car should not be prioritized. Remember my tips if you ever experience brake failure.

If you want to learn more about your car and what to do in certain situations, explore the rest of my blog. I have plenty of helpful guides for the everyday driver.

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Ernest Martynyuk

An automotive enthusiast who's been tinkering with vehicles since I was 15-years old. Repairing automotive electronics has been my main job for over a decade now and have a passion for everything technical regarding cars.

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