Driving: How to Survive a Brake Failure or Rollover

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Losing control over your automobile doesn’t have to be a moment of panic. Whether your brakes fail our your car flips over, have an action plan ready.

Brake Failure

Rollover auto accident
Don’t be this car. Image credit: Gerhard G.

Knowing when and how to brake properly is a vital part of a defensive driving strategy. So is having brakes that will actually respond when you put your foot on the pedal.

Brake failure or degradation is cited in 22% of crashes when a vehicle problem is the critical reason for the crash, according to a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“Approximately 90% of crashes occur as a result of human error, meaning not many crashes actually occur due to mechanical malfunctions,” says Dr. Bill Van Tassel, AAA’s manager of driver training programs. “The point is that brake failure is rare, but it can still happen. So, it’s good to know how to respond.”

Learn and train

Read your vehicle owner’s manual to learn more about how your auto’s specific brake system works. Find out whether or not your vehicle has Anti-Lock Braking System (ABS) brakes.

Van Tassel also suggests that drivers figure out in advance what they would in a real emergency.

“In a safe area, away from all other traffic, cyclists and pedestrians, practice slowing and bringing the vehicle to a stop without pressing the brake pedal,” he says. “This helps you run through your response before you are actually faced with loss of braking ability.”

If your brakes fail

To begin with, don’t panic. Steer smoothly, use your mirrors, and signal when turning or changing lanes. “Also keep your eyes on the road to help maintain an open path ahead,” says Van Tassel.

  • Try to get the brakes working again.
    • If you don’t have ABS brakes, most experts advise pumping the brake pedal rapidly to build up pressure. Don’t keep your foot jammed down on the brake, or the wheels might lock.
    • Alternatively, Van Tassel recommends a similar strategy called Threshold Braking. “Apply the brakes aggressively, right up until the tires begin to lock up. Then ease up the brake pedal just a very little bit, just enough to allow the tires to start rolling again, and then squeeze down firmly again.”
    • If you have four-wheel ABS brakes, apply steady and firm pressure to the brake pedal. “Since ABS brakes will not lock up when used hard, it’s OK to use them very aggressively if needed,” says Van Tassel.
    • If you have rear-wheel ABS brakes, which is common in light trucks, ease up on the pedal, reducing pressure just enough so that the front wheels start rolling again.
  • If your brakes won’t respond, or if you need help slowing down while working the brakes:
    • Shift your transmission into a lower gear or neutral.
    • Apply the parking brake. This can also lock your rear wheels, so keep your hand on the brake release. That way you can release it immediately if you start to skid.
    • As a last resort, steer into any relatively safe obstacle. For instance, you can drive into bushes or scrape the wheels against a curb or embankment.
  • While you’re doing all of this, find an escape route away from traffic, such as into a right lane, shoulder or exit ramp. If possible, get off the roadway completely. Sound your horn and flash your lights to warn drivers and pedestrians in your path.
  • After your vehicle has finally stopped:
    • Turn off the ignition. Just don’t turn it off while still moving, or you may lose the ability to steer.
    • Turn on your emergency flashers, tie a white object to the antennae or otherwise warn oncoming traffic of your presence. Avoid standing behind or next to the vehicle, or an unwary driver might accidentally hit you.
    • Call for a tow truck. “Do not drive the vehicle until the brakes are repaired,” says Van Tassel. “A vehicle not starting is bad enough; not being able to stop a moving vehicle could be much worse.”

Rollovers

The last thing you want to do to your car is flip it over.

While relatively rare, “rollover” accidents caused 6,358 accident fatalities in 2019, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Here’s how to avoid or survive one:

Maneuver carefully

It was six in the morning on St. Patrick’s Day, 2012, when Hannah Ritchie’s headlights spotted a dog on the freeway. “I had swerved to the left to avoid the dog and then swerved to the right to avoid hitting the median guard rail, resulting in my jeep swerving back and forth along four lanes of the freeway and eventually rolling the jeep over three or four times,” she says.

Rollovers often occur after the driver turns too suddenly, over-corrects to avoid obstacles or hits the brakes too hard. If your automobile leaves the pavement, steer and brake gradually until you’ve returned to your lane.

Buckle your seat belt

In a survey of rollover accidents, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that eighty-seven percent of people who were thrown out of their vehicles didn’t have their seat belts on. You’re far more likely to survive if your body stays inside of the vehicle, according to research available at the National Institutes of Health.

Ritchie was wearing her belt, which probably saved her life. “When the car stopped all I heard was the sound of my radio going and cars on the adjacent freeway,” says Ritchie, 27, who lives in Sacramento, California. “I slowly lifted my head and opened my eyes to find myself upright, off the freeway, facing the median.”

Be careful with tall vehicles

While any automobile can roll over, SUV’s, light trucks and vans do so more easily. They have a higher center of gravity that makes them relatively easy to tip over. Loading passengers into a van or cargo onto the roof of any vehicle will also raise its center of gravity.

“I wasn’t used to driving an SUV, since I had only owned smaller cars up until about a month prior to the accident, so I quickly lost control,” says Ritchie.

On the bright side, if you’re inside of a relatively heavy vehicle, like an SUV, you’re more likely to survive a rollover than the occupants of a lightweight one. Visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) online for check the rollover safety rating for your vehicle.

Use the manufacturer’s tires

Some SUV’s come factory-equipped with tires that have a little less grip than those on regular cars, according to Consumer Reports. This helps to slide a little during an emergency, instead of gripping the ground so tightly that it flips the vehicle over.

At the same time, you don’t want your tires so worn — or improperly inflated — that they don’t grip at all. When it’s time to replace the original tires, select a set similar to what the factory provided, then keep them properly inflated and in good condition.

Opt for safety features

Vehicles equipped with Electronic Stability Control (ESC), Roll Stability Control (RSC) and sensors that trigger side air bags (SCAB) may improve your ability to prevent or survive a rollover, according to the NHTSA.

Striking your head against the roof is a major cause of rollover injuries. Another is when the roof collapses and crushes you. A strong frame designed to hold it in place and padding on the underside will help keep you safe.

Beware of country roads

Three-quarters of all rollovers occur in rural areas. The roads often lack safety barriers that keep you from skidding off the pavement. The shoulders, if they exist, may be soft and adjacent to embankments.

Ritchie survived her ordeal with a concussion, along with some scrapes and bruises. Afterward, she attended therapy for six months to deal with post-accident emotional issues. “I will still have extreme anxiety when I’m in traffic and have to drive by another accident, but it’s getting better,” she says.


David Arv Bragi, profile picture

David Arv Bragi is a multidisciplinary journalist with experience in health, safety, personal finance, technology, arts and cultural topics. He is also a former team leader and volunteer in community/tower emergency response teams. He currently lives just outside of Bellingham, Washington.