What To Do if Your Brakes Fail – Parking Brake Use is Risky!

I’ve been triggered into writing this by an old post on the same topic that I’ve just seen and replied to, on the Allstate Safe Driving Blog.

By no means are all “safe driving” writers always accurate enough!

With no disrespect to Allstate or the writer of the piece, it was clearly written by someone with only a reasonable knowledge of the issue himself, despite having referenced various sources.  I say this because there were a couple of inclusions which are very questionable.

The first of these was about using the “emergency brake” — a highly inappropriate name for the parking brake — to help stop the vehicle, and my response to that point is shown in my reply to Allstate, below.  Having said that, a handbrake is a dramatically safer option that a foot-operated parking brake because, with the button held in, it can be applied much more accurately and released instantaneously without extra risk.

Photo: Some foot-operated parking brakes such as this one lock in the on position when pressed and have to be pressed a second time, and harder, to release them. (Photograph: Nissan)
Some foot-operated parking brakes such as this one (left) lock in the ‘on’ position when pressed and have to be pressed a second time, and harder, to release them. (Photograph: Nissan)

See the video associated with the above photograph, from Nissan.

A second concern in the Allstate blog was linked to this reference to downshifting through the gears, which is a good method to use as long as you don’t try to force the shift into a very low gear at a disproportionately high speed.  If you were successful, this could actually cause a skid.  Oh, and don’t worry about damaging your gearbox — not unless you think the gearbox is worth more than your life!

More specifically, the Allstate writer put: “If you have an automatic transmission, taking your foot off the accelerator should cause your car to shift to lower gears as it slows down.”  Yet many automatic gearboxes offer lower gears such as “3” and “2,” or lower ratios (“L” or “Lo”), not just “D,” so they too can and should be shifted down just as one would with a manual / stick-shift gearbox. (See photo below.)

Photo of an automatic gearbox gearlever
Automatic gearbox gearlever (photo: Popular Mechanics)

My reply on the Allstate blog regarding emergency/parking brakes was:

When you write “one option is to very carefully employ the emergency brake,” there are two significant problems.  Firstly, there should never be any reference made to an “emergency brake,” because there is no such thing despite its frankly stupid name that has been allowed to persist for decades.  It is a “parking brake” and quite often would apply brakes too harshly for a safe deceleration.  And secondly, the majority of parking brakes in North America are operated by the left foot and either have a little lever beneath the dash to release them (we will come back to this) or *dangerously,* need to be pressed even harder to release them.  So let’s consider potential outcomes if a foot-operated parking brake is applied because of a suspected brake failure:  If the pedal needs to be released by a second, harder push, and the vehicle has already started skidding, or a skid is developing because of the harshness of this type of brake, you’d better have a holy book handy because prayers will definitely be needed.  If the foot-operated parking brake in question is released by a lever under the dash, at least one American state has idiotic advice in its state drivers’ manual that the driver should drive along (with failed brakes, remember?) holding this lever, ready to pull it and release the parking brake!  Really?  With a skid potentially imminent and a vehicle at least partially out of control they want an inexperienced young driver to have (a) one hand off the steering wheel, (b) be in a very poor position, leaning forwards, to even be able to steer properly, and (c) now be in deadly proximity to the driver’s airbag which may be triggered any moment and can kill at close-range!  Oh, and given that most American drivers rarely if ever use a parking brake, it is quite possible that they would pull the wrong lever under the dash and release the hood catch, instead!

Now, yes; you did say it should be employed “carefully” but there are two further problems with this:  A young, inexperienced and presumably very frightened driver with failed brakes is rather unlikely to be able to maintain the cool composure needed to do this carefully and could end up killing him/herself (and others) entirely *unnecessarily* by trying to use the parking brake. And if done wrongly, this method emphatically would create a skid and in all probability remove any last chance the driver had of maintaining a degree of control.

THE safest option, by far!

Prevention is always better than cure.  Have the brakes, and the brake fluid, checked at reasonable intervals.  Badly worn parts are obviously a risk, and brake fluid itself can absorb water, which destroys its hydraulic efficiency. This alone can be the cause of a failure.

What options remain, in the unlikely event that you have a brake failure?

Allstate rather flunked a crucial point twice when they wrote: “A clear head can be your ally behind the wheel, especially when things go awry. If your brakes fail, it’s typically in your best interest to remain calm…”  Can be your ally…?  Typically in your best interests?  No, it is essential to keep a clear head and stay calm.  Anything else might be dancing with death — your own or somebody else’s.

A lot depends on what type of road you are on if a brake failure happens, and how many vehicles and possibly pedestrians or cyclists are in your potential  path.  A huge responsibility must be shown to people you might harm, so let’s do what we can to warn them:

  • On a fast highway, switch your four-way hazard warning lights and headlights on (although a wise and truly safe driver will have low-beam headlights on 24 hours a day, in any weather) and if appropriate try to move your car across towards the shoulder.
  • If you are in an urban or sub-urban setting, use your horn when appropriate to warn people to keep out of your way, especially if you are approaching a crosswalk or have no way to avoid running a red light or stop sign — but use your thumb only, do NOT take your hand off the wheel. (A hand off the wheel to use the horn is always unnecessary and creates significantly more risk.)

Using truly solid objects, such as utility poles or trees of about that same thickness is extremely dangerous. Hedgerows, sapling trees and fences are much safer for you, but you need to be able to see that no people will be put in danger by you doing that.  Grinding against parked cars is another option that is sometimes mentioned but this carries severe risk if any people are standing in between a row of parked vehicles.

Driving off the road may be an option but ditches carry a major danger of rollover, an extremely dangerous form of crash.  In addition, soft ground can also cause a vehicle to roll and one way to help avoid this risk is to get the front wheels pointing straight ahead a split second before those wheels leave the asphalt to go onto the yard or field that you are aiming for.


Author: EddieWren

Eddie Wren is the CEO and Chief Instructor at Advanced Drivers of North America. His driver safety background is given at: http://www.advanceddrivers.com/ceochief-instructors-resumecvbio/

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