Brake failure - and what you can do about it

Most of us take the brakes on our cars for granted, but an outright failure - although rare - could cost us our lives. And even brakes that are operating at below peak efficiency can put us in danger by increasing stopping distances.

The average driver uses their brakes more than 75,000 times a year, and on the UK's crowded roads, we are perhaps even more reliant on good brakes than in other countries. Think of typical closing speeds on narrow country roads that can approach 100mph, and the times we touch our brakes when in heavy, yet briskly moving traffic on urban, suburban and country roads and or motorways.

What should you do if your brakes fail?

It's very unlikely you will get a total brake failure, especially with modern dual-circuit brakes, but it is worth knowing what to do if this very hazardous eventuality does occur.

If your brakes fail when you're driving, you need to stay calm as much as possible. Leave your car in gear, keep your foot away from the accelerator and steer to avoid other road users and/or obstacles. Turn off your cruise control if you have one and it's on.

Try pumping your brakes if they feel soft and your pedal has gone towards the floor. It may be possible to regain some brake pressure that will help you slow your vehicle. Use your engine to slow down by shifting into a lower gear, but don't force it. If your car is still going too fast, you'll only succeed in doing damage, and perhaps losing control. Changing down gradually, applies to both manual and automatic transmissions.

Applying the handbrake carefully can also help - it is usually cable-operated, separately from the main braking circuits, so may well still be operational. Be careful to keep control of the vehicle, though, while you're pulling on the handbrake.

If you're on a fast multi-lane road, move into the left-hand lane, if possible, and then as your car loses speed move on to the hard shoulder, if there is one. Once your car has slowed down, change into neutral and allow it to come to a stop - try to find a safe place, out of the main flow of traffic. Then engage your handbrake and get out of the car and walk to a safe place. Call the your recovery provider to get your car to an approved garage, once you're safe.

What makes our brakes fail?

A number of factors can lead to brake failure - or bad brake performance - when we need them. These include design and manufacturing faults, sloppy servicing, infrequent maintenance and even vandalism. Worn brake pads or shoes and discs or drums, leaky brake pipes or old brake fluid are some of the commonest faults.

Whatever the cause, a vehicle with brake problems is a serious accident waiting to happen.

Sorting out brake problems

Thankfully, most brake problems are easy to spot and DIY is often an option to fix them. Take notice of vibration, unusual noises, increased or decreased resistance (sponginess) when braking, and get them checked by your garage or carefully yourself. Remember, it could be you and your family's lives at stake.

If you get a warning light on your brakes, things have probably gone too far. You've missed warnings in use or your maintenance intervals have become too long. Take immediate action to rectify the fault, and make some changes to the way you inspect your brakes and the intervals at which they are inspected.

David Williams MBE is the Chief Executive of GEM Motoring Assist, a multi award-winning breakdown provider renowned for the quality and value of its services. You can learn more about brake servicing on his website.

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