Handling Brake Failure and Steering Failure

Today’s cars are well-built and the likelihood that you or your teen would ever encounter brake failure or steering failure is very low. However, the results of these failures are potentially deadly, so it’s worth learning how to handle them. And the best way to learn how to handle these situations is through a little knowledge and some controlled practice.

How to Handle Brake Failure

Step 1: Relax and begin warning other drivers.

If your brakes become unresponsive, do not panic. It’s quite possible that an empty soda can or some other piece of trash has become lodged behind your brake pedal. If this is the case, don’t bend down to move it as this would take your eyes off the road. Use your foot to dislodge the obstruction. And then go to a gas station and clean out your car! If this doesn’t work, relax. Turn on your flashers and honk your horn. This will create some space around your car. Some other guides we’ve read stress taking your foot off the gas once you realize your brakes have failed. We assume that you’ve already done this if you’re noticing brake pedal problems.

Step 2: Downshift.

Downshift your car to a lower gear. Since most of us have automatic transmission, this means moving from D to 3, 2, or 1. This will begin the process of slowing your car down. If you’re traveling at high speeds, don’t immediately shift from a high gear to D1. Downshift in stages.

Step 3: Build up brake pressure.

If your car has an anti-lock braking system, or ABS, (which includes nearly all cars made within the last 15 years), simply press hard on the pedal. Do not be alarmed if it takes several seconds for your car to begin braking. Remember, ABS is an electronically-controlled system which pumps your brakes for you. So, while you would need to pump your brake pedal in a non-ABS equipped vehicle, this is not required in your ABS-equipped vehicle. Lastly, do not be alarmed if you feel a heavy pulse coming from the brake pedal. This is normal with anti-lock brakes.

Step 4: Use your parking brake.

Use your parking brake to help further slow your vehicle. Your parking brake will not slow your vehicle as quickly as your regular brakes, so be patient. Also, your parking brake can lock up your wheels if applied too quickly with too much pressure. Apply your parking brake slowly and be wary of wheel lockup.

  • If you have a hand brake, keep the release button engaged (this is the button on the front of the handle). This allows you to fine tune the amount of brake pressure you’re applying. Note: Don’t use the hand brake when traveling more than 40 mph.
  • If you have a foot brake with a push-to-release system (many SUVs use this type of parking brake), push the foot brake very slowly. If your tires lock up, release the brake and move on to something else.

Step 5: Use your eyes and brain.

Keep your eyes scanning the road for possible locations where you can further slow your progress.

Step 6: Seek friction!

If the previous actions don’t work, you may need to start improvising ways to slow your car. Look for inclines or changes in the road terrain.

  • The side of some roads are gravel or grass and can help slow your car fairly quickly. Just be careful of skidding if two of your wheels are on gravel and the other two are on smooth pavement.
  • Rub up against guardrails to slow your vehicle. Luckily, cement dividers are widest at their base, so while your tires may get a little beat up, your car’s body will not get damaged by using this technique.
  • Look for hills or inclines to slow your vehicle, but be cautious of using this technique. You may end up slowing down, but then rolling back down the hill! So, instead, you may wish to look for small trees (diameters of less than 3″) or shrubbery. Stay away from large trees as crashing into them could be fatal.
  • Other cars are another last-ditch target. Obviously, try to hit the rear of another car traveling in the same direction as yours. Aim to hit the car squarely from the back.

Safety tips:

  • You cannot throw your car into reverse in order to slow down your car. The electronics that control an automatic transmission simply won’t allow this. Instead, downshift.
  • Trying to put your car into Park is also a bad idea. The mechanism that binds your transmission is not strong enough to handle a moving vehicle. It will fail and provide little stopping power.
  • The brake warning light in your vehicle’s dash is there for a reason and should not be ignored. If it remains lit during regular driving, go to a service station where they can examine your brakes. Brake maintenance is probably the best way to avoid brake failure.

How to practice brake failure in an empty parking lot:

Obviously, brake failure (like all catastrophic car failures) is pretty rare, so you don’t need to go overboard in terms of practicing this. In fact, we recommend simply discussing the procedure with your teen rather than attempting to practice all of the steps. However, we do think it is essential to get a feel for using your parking brake to slow down a car. In an empty parking lot, accelerate to 10 or 15 mph. When you feel it’s appropriate, tell your teen that your car has suddenly lost its brakes and to bring the car to a stop using the parking brake. When using the parking brake in this manner for the first time, most people are extremely tentative and begin to think the brake isn’t working. It takes some practice to get a feel for how hard to pull on the hand brake. We recommend that you practice this first on your own before asking your teen driver to do so.

Steering Failure:

The likelihood of experiencing power steering failure is about the same as winning the lottery. Of course, someone has to win the lottery. Likewise, someone’s car will lose its power steering. And since you don’t know who that someone is going to be, you should be prepared. Typically, power steering doesn’t shut off instantly. When it fails, turning the wheel will simply become more and more difficult. You will need to work very hard to turn the wheel without power steering. Hopefully, your brakes are still working. But, if your engine has stalled, your hydraulic brakes will also have malfunctioned. So, you may have to employ some of the techniques used during brake failure. Try to come to a stop on the side of a road or similar safe area.


Losing one’s brakes or steering is a frightening experience. Discussing these procedures and practicing use of your hand brake can help prepare your teen for these unlikely, but potentially tragic events.

All information and advice contained within this website is to be taken at your own risk. Nothing contained within this website should be misconstrued as professional driving instruction.