How to Handle Brake Failure Like a Boss

Your chemistry teacher failing you is scary, but your car brakes failing you is even scarier. So how do you prepare for brake failure? Well, exactly the same way you would prepare for an chemistry test — study, practice and if you don’t know the answer, always pick choice C. Let’s learn about vehicle brake systems so that you’re ready to deal with brake failure if it happens to you.

Brake-ing It Down

When brakes do their job right, it’s magical. How does pushing that little pedal make your 4,000-lb vehicle traveling at 75 mph come to a complete stop? Read on, curious learner.

Wait for it ...
Wait for it …

Hydraulic Pressure

“Under Pressure” is not only a catchy song by Queen and David Bowie, it’s also what happens when your foot hits the brake pedal. You see, you have a hydraulic brake, meaning when you press down on it, the force is multiplied by a hydraulic fluid (also called brake fluid) composed of mineral oil or water. Your car’s hydraulic fluid level needs to be in check in order for your brakes to work, so we’ll go over how to check it later in this article.



Hydraulic brakes aren’t the only “magic” that make cars stop. Friction plays an equally important role in the mechanics of your car brake. In fact, your brake contains parts that are composed of an anti-heat friction material, which helps create resistance and slow down your car. Let’s go over in more detail how hydraulic pressure and friction work together within your brake system.

Stranger than friction.
Stranger than friction.

Brake Types

Most cars have two types of brakes: drum brakes and disc brakes. Hydraulic pressure and friction are at work in both types, but the mechanics of drum and disc brakes are slightly different.

In drum brakes, hydraulic fluid moves from the brake pedal to a set of “brake shoes,” which are composed of that friction material we mentioned earlier. The brake shoes then press up against the brake drum and bring your car wheels to a halt.

Diagram from
Diagram from
In disc brakes, brake fluid moves from the brake pedal to a brake caliper. The caliper contains two pads situated on either side of a brake rotor. When the brake pedal is activated, those pads get pressed together by a caliper piston. Scrrrrrrttt … and stop.
Diagram from
Diagram from

Disc brakes are considered to be better than drum brakes because they are less likely to get overheated, which can cause brake problems or brake failure. Typically, cars have disc brakes in the front and drum brakes in the back. In this way, your brake system is much like a mullet: business in the front, party in the back.

Phew. That was a lot of information about brakes. Now let’s take a break, shift gears and talk about what to do in the event of brake failure.

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop

We run brakes, brakes don't run we.
We run brakes, brakes don’t run we.

Brakes not braking? Step by step here’s what to do:

  1. If you drive a standard car, downshift to a lower gear. If you drive an automatic car, the gears will lower as you decelerate.
  2. If you have regular brakes, pump the brake pedal fast and hard to build up hydraulic fluid pressure. Hey, we talked about that earlier! If you have anti-lock brakes, push the brake all the way down and hold.
  3. Use your secret weapon: the parking brake. Gradually apply the parking brake and be prepared for your car to skid.
  4. If all else fails, steer into a safe direction (like away from other cars) until your car rolls to a complete stop.If you’re driving super fast on the highway, that might mean you have to create friction between your car and the guardrail to slow down.
  5. Make sure you honk your horn and flash your warning lights to let other cars know that your brakes aren’t working! Above all, try to stay calm. You can do this.

Troubled Waters

You’ve learned that your brakes need hydraulic fluid to work properly. Here’s how to check and make sure your brake fluid levels are enough to quench your car’s thirst. Gotta keep that baby hydrated.

Tell 'em, NeNe.
Tell ’em, NeNe.
  1. Open up your car hood and locate the master cylinder. The top part of the master cylinder is a brake fluid reservoir that looks like this:
    Don't drink this, please.
    Don’t drink this, please.
  2. Check the fluid level in the reservoir by making sure it’s between the marks labeled “max” and “min.”
  3. You can also check the color of your fluid. It should be brown, so if it looks black, that could mean you need to change it.
  4. Add brake fluid if necessary or visit the nearest auto mechanic.

The easiest way to prevent brake failure is to keep up your vehicle maintenance. Make sure you get an annual vehicle safety inspection and visit an auto shop if something feels “off” with your car. Regularly keep up with other preventative car maintenance like changing your oil, getting your tires rotated and replacing your windshield wipers and air filters. Make sure your car is nice and healthy so that you stay safe!