How to Stop an Automatic Car if The Brakes Fail

Volvo SUV traveling on a flooded road approaching a corner

It can be challenging to navigate today’s busy roads; add a malfunctioning brake system to the mix and you can wind up in a bad position. This may have you wondering what to do if your brakes fail while hurdling down the road. Understanding how to stop an automatic car if the brakes fail can prevent a tragic outcome.

If your brakes fail while driving down the road follow these steps:

  • Remain calm
  • Pump brake pedal
  • Slowly apply pressure to the parking brake
  • Slowly shift to a lower gear
  • Steer to Safety

Don’t shut the vehicle off; keep the engine running so you have more control over where your vehicle will stop.

To learn more about what to do if your brakes fail and other helpful information continue reading.

What to Do When Your Brakes Fail

The list above gave you basic steps to stopping your vehicle if the brakes fail; here we will elaborate on those bulleted items to give you a better idea of what you should do to prevent a bad situation from turning worse.

Person driving a car focused on the road with the vehicle moving fast

Breathe Deeply and Don’t Panic!

Although it may be easier said than done, don’t panic if you find that your brakes are not working; panicking will only make an already stressful situation worse. Take a few deep breaths to gather your wits and follow the next steps.

Make Yourself Known

After you have calmed down immediately turn on your hazard lights to let other drivers or pedestrians know that something is wrong. If you are in heavy traffic use your horn to get people’s attention and hopefully they will yield and get out of the way so there are no accidents.

Pump Your Heart Out

If your brakes fail to work it is time to give your brake pedal a few really good pumps to see if you can manually build any pressure back up in the lines.

After three to five strong pedal pumps, you will know if this method will work. If you do not feel any pressure build back up at all abandon the pumping and try the next step.

Note: Most newer vehicles have ABS brakes which normally do not require pumping as they are designed to do the pumping for you. If your ABS goes out you will have to do the pumping to try and build pressure in the lines.

Close up of a person pressing the brake pedal in an automatic transmission car

Carefully Engage Parking Brake

Sadly most newer vehicles went away with emergency brake levers and pedals. Now it’s simply a button that only activates when the vehicle is parked. However, if you do have an older vehicle, this method can most certainly help.

If pumping the brakes to build pressure in the lines didn’t work, then it’s time to put the parking brake to use. Now, unless you want to reenact a scene from Fast and Furious it is imperative that you gradually apply pressure to the parking brake aka emergency brake.

If you engage the parking brake too quickly you will likely experience some serious drifting and possibly flipping if you are not careful. The parking brake is mechanical and does not rely on the hydraulics of the automotive braking system.

It works by slowing the rear wheels manually as you engage the brake which is why it is so important to engage gradually to prevent spinning and totally losing control of the vehicle.

Close up of a car driver pulling the manual emergency hand brake to park the vehicle

Shift Down to Reduce Momentum

Most automatic vehicles have the ability to shift to a lower gear if needed. If the manual parking brake is not working or not working fast enough it is time to downshift.

To downshift while your vehicle is moving it is important that you don’t just jam the shifter to the lower gears.

Shifting in one fast motion as that can cause damage to the vehicle’s transmission and potentially cause you to lose control. Gently shifting down through the gears one at a time will slow down the engine of the vehicle and help to reduce your momentum.

Find the Best Path and Steer!

While all of the above is happening you still need to somehow pay attention to where you are actually headed. That is why it is so important to know what to do in a situation like this before it happens.

If the above steps do not produce the results you need your final and most important job is to find the safest path possible and steer toward it. If that means you have to go off the side of the road and hit a bush to avoid causing a 10-car pileup then do it!

There is always a risk of an accident or injury but the outcome can be significantly better if you are able to steer away from other cars and pedestrians. You may end up with some damage to your vehicle but at least nobody was hurt or killed.

Person driving a car driving down the road at night at a busy intersection in the city

Stopping a Manual Transmission With Failed Brakes

Although this article is geared toward stopping an automatic vehicle with failed brakes it is always a good idea to know how to stop both types of vehicles. Here is a brief description in case you find yourself in this situation.

Ideally when your brakes fail there will be nobody in front of you and you can let off the gas and gradually downshift until you come to a stop. However, that is usually not the case.

If you are barreling along the interstate in fifth gear and your brakes fail you may need to act quickly, but be sure not to act too quickly though, or you may spin out of control or destroy your vehicle’s transmission.

Push the clutch in and shift down to 4th gear or 3rd gear depending on how fast you are traveling and gradually let off the clutch as the downshifting slows the vehicle down.

Next, shift down to 3rd gear or 2nd gear until you feel the engine slow again, and then shift down to the 1st gear. Some newer vehicles will continue to roll slowly in 1st gear so you may need to gently apply the parking brake until the vehicle comes to a complete stop.

Knowing how to react if your brakes fail is only half of the equation; to learn the warning signs of brake issues before an accident happens, continue reading.

Close up of a man driving a car shifting the gears on a manual transmission

Signs to Know You May Have Brake Issues

The best way to avoid your brakes from failing when you need them the most is to pay attention to the warning signs that something may be wrong. If you pay attention and listen to your vehicle it will tell you when it needs maintenance.

Feel the Vibrations

If you begin to feel a vibration or pulsing when you apply pressure to the brake pedal that is a good indication that there may be an issue and you should have it looked at by a professional who specializes in working on brake systems.

Fighting the Pull

When you apply pressure to the brake pedal the calipers should apply an equal amount of pressure to each rotor allowing the vehicle to stop in a straight line.

If you find that your vehicle is pulling to one side or the other when you hit the brakes it’s time to get them looked at. Pulling to one side can mean that your calipers are not disengaging properly.

If you have to make a sudden stop faulty calipers could cause you to veer in the wrong direction and possibly get into an accident.

When car brakes are applied the steering wheel turns in one direction person is trying to control the vehicle

Sounds That Make You Go Eek

Another sure-fire sign that your brakes need inspecting is when you hear a grinding or scrubbing sound as you are going down the road or stopping.

If you hear it when you are not pressing the brake pedal you likely have a stuck caliper and need to get it fixed as soon as possible.

Leaking Fluid

If you see any puddles of fluid under your vehicle don’t ignore them. Locate the source and have it fixed. If you have a brake fluid leak your automotive braking system will not be able to build the pressure necessary to operate properly.

Brake fluid visible on the concrete floor in a pink red color coming from the vehicle

That Little Shining Light on the Dashboard

Don’t you just hate it when a warning light presents itself in your dash cluster? Do yourself a favor and don’t ignore it. If there is a light on your dash there is a reason for it and brakes are nothing to put off for another day.

The Unmistakable Squeak

When you hear that annoying high-pitched squeak as you are applying pressure to the brakes it is likely time to replace your brake pads. Riding on brake pads that are too thin can eventually cause damage to your rotors so be sure to have them checked regularly.

Underperforming

Another indication that you may be having issues with your vehicle’s brake system is if the pedal feels spongy or if it takes longer to come to a stop than it should. This could mean that you have air in the lines or a fluid leak somewhere.

To learn about keeping your vehicle’s brake system in top condition continue reading.

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

Preventative Maintenance

Now that you know what to look and listen for it is time to discuss maintenance, after all, properly maintaining the brake system on your vehicle is one of the most important things you need to do.

By keeping your brake system regularly maintained by a professional it is likely that you will never need to use the advice on how to stop without brakes in this article; however, should something happen you will be prepared.

It is recommended that you have your vehicle’s brake system checked around every six months possibly more frequently if you do a lot of excessive driving and hard braking due to traffic.

The following is a list of what should be inspected regularly to be sure your vehicle’s braking system is up to snuff.

Mechanic fixing the car brakes and doing preventative maintenance with the tire wheel removed and the brake caliper and rotor visible

Calipers, Pads, and Rotors

Having these components checked every six months can prevent uneven wear and increase their lifespan. Most importantly is making sure that your brake pads always have enough meat on them and are wearing evenly.

Using good-quality pads and changing them when they need it will keep your calipers and rotors from needing to be replaced prematurely. Although you may think you are saving money with bargain brands oftentimes you will have to replace them sooner. Quality counts when it comes to your brake pads.

Close up of a car brake pad installed on a rotor

Brake Fluid Inspection/Flush

You may not always need to flush your brake fluid, but it is important to have it checked. Your professional will check to see that it looks good and the brake fluid reservoir is full.

If your brake fluid reservoir is low it could mean that there is a leak somewhere or you possibly need to bleed the system of air and top it off with a little more fluid.

Brake fluid drum and reservoir visible inside the engine bay of the car

Release Air From Lines

As mentioned above sometimes you just need to have the air bled from your brake lines and add a little fluid to get your system back up to par. Your mechanic will know if this needs to be done.

In addition to proper maintenance, the best way to preserve the life of your brakes is by practicing good driving techniques.

Slow down – Try to give yourself plenty of time to stop so you don’t have to slam the brakes on at the last minute every time. Be aware of your surroundings and try to anticipate what will happen next.

If you know the light will be turning red, take your foot off of the gas and coast for a moment before gradually braking and coming to a smooth stop rather than racing to the light and having to slam on the brakes.

Back Off – Stay off of other vehicles’ rear ends; tailgating will result in having to ride the brakes or once again, slamming them too hard because the person you are trailing so closely has stopped without warning.

Car mechanic bleeding out the air from the braking system

Conclusion

In short, when your brakes fail – keep calm and steer on. If you remain calm and follow the steps discussed in this article, you will have an improved chance of avoiding an accident or tragic event. For more helpful information on maintaining your vehicle and staying safe on the road try consulting with the friendly professionals at Motor Hills – Specializing in everything on the road. 

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References:

Motor Hills

Conquer Driving

Greg’s Japanese Auto

McCarthy Olathe Nissan

Chapel Hill Tire – Car Care

Drivers Ed

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Brakes To-Go

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Motorist

How to Stop Your Car with No Brakes

Nationwide

How and when to use your emergency brake

General Auto Repair

10 Signs Your Car Needs New Brakes ASAP

Carpart.com.au

Best Driving Tips That Will Save Your Brake Pads

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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