Posted on by Defensive Driving | in Defensive Driving Online

The average driver uses his or her brakes about 75,000 times a year, making the brakes one of the most important (and overworked!) parts of your car. While total brake failure is rare, it is also very dangerous. The best way to deal with brake failure is to prevent it by maintaining your brakes.

Most cars have two brake systems. The regular brakes, those attached to your brake pedal, are connected to a hydraulic system. The parking brake, either a lever to the right of the driver or, on some automatic cars, a foot pedal, is activated using a cable. It’s designed to be totally separate from the regular braking system, so that it can be used if the main brakes fail.

Many newer cars have anti-lock brake systems (ABS). If you have ABS, an ABS logo should light up on your dashboard when you turn on your car. If you are unsure of what kind of braking system you have, you can also check your owner’s manual.
ABS brakes are designed to help you stop as quickly as possible. Brake pressure is at a maximum right before the wheels lock; however, once your wheels lock, you lose control over steering. An ABS system senses when a wheel is about to lock and automatically “pumps” the brake to maintain maximum pressure without locking the wheel. If you have ABS, you’ll feel a shuddering in the brake pedal when you try to stop suddenly. While this may feel unpleasant, as though something is “wrong” with the brakes, it’s actually a sign that your ABS system is keeping you safe. Consult your owner’s manual to learn how to use your ABS brakes properly.
If you don’t have ABS brakes, you should learn how to pump your brakes yourself. When trying to make a sudden stop, press down on and release the brake repeatedly and as quickly as possible, rather than simply pressing the brake to the floor. This will prevent your wheels from locking.

There are a few simple ways to check the health of your brakes. First, open the hood and look at the brake fluid in the master cylinder. If this is low, there could be a leak in the system OR the brake pads could be wearing thin. If you aren’t a capable mechanic yourself, take your car to a local service station to have your brakes checked. Second, check the level of the brake pedal. If it’s too low, there could be a problem. Finally, check the color of the brake fluid. If it’s dark brown or cloudy, it’s likely that your brake fluid needs replacing.
In general, aim to get your brakes checked annually. Many experts recommended changing your brake fluid, also called “bleeding your brakes”, every one or two years.
You can also take steps to avoid damaging your breaks. Aggressive driving and driving in stop-and-go traffic can place unnecessary strain on your brake system. Modify your driving style and try to avoid driving in traffic whenever possible; consider leaving for work a bit earlier and taking a slightly longer lunch break to avoid rush hour. Also, avoid resting your foot on the brake pedal when not braking.

In the past few years, several leading automobile companies have recalled cars and trucks due to potential brake problems. If your car has been recalled, don’t risk a possible problem; take it in for maintenance as soon as possible. For a complete database of recalls issued in the United States, check out this government website:

Despite all the precautions one can take, brakes do fail. Should this happen to you, DON’T PANIC. Then, follow these steps to begin slowing down your car. Remember that it’s important to slow down gradually; slowing your car too suddenly could cause you to lose control of your car and end up in an accident.

1. Shift into a lower gear.
If you are driving a car with manual transmission, downshift as quickly as you can without losing control of the car. Don’t shift into first or second gear too suddenly; wait until the car has slowed somewhat.
If you’re in a car with automatic transmission, shift down one gear at the time. The first of the low gears is usually labeled “1.”

2. Check to see how your brake pedal feels.

If your brake pedal feels loose, this could indicate a lack of brake pressure. Pump your brake rapidly to build up pressure (do this even if you do have ABS brakes.) Then, once you have built pressure, press down on the brake firmly.

If your brake pedal feels stiff, there could be a blockage. Use your foot to clear possible obstructions from under the brake pedal or have a passenger take a look.

3. If (2) doesn’t work, then apply your parking brake. Apply this brake gradually to avoid locking your wheels.

4. Again, don’t panic. As you complete these steps, keep your eyes on the road to avoid obstacles. Alert other drivers to your predicament by flashing your lights and honking.

5. If steps 1-3 aren’t effective, then you’ll need to find alternative ways to slow your car. Remember that friction will help to slow you down. Create friction by:

a. Brushing against a guard rail;
b. Driving on a non-paved surface;
c. Driving through shrubbery;
d. Turning from side to side;
e. Opening the doors or sun-roof to create air resistance.
Remember to approach the guard rail or non-paved surface at a shallow angle; otherwise, you’ll risk flipping the car. When driving through shrubbery or underbrush, avoid trees, as these will stop your car far too suddenly. Only try to turn the car from side to side if you are travelling at a fairly low speed; if you turn sharply while moving quickly, you’ll risk flipping the car.
Above all, remain calm, stay in control of your car, and slow down gradually. Once you’ve come to a complete stop, exit the car and call for help.

To learn more about this topic, or a broad range of subjects from “How To Change A Tire” to “How To Jumpstart Your Battery”, visit DefensiveDriving.com’s Safe Driver Resources website!

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