• DON'T PANIC!
  • If you realise that the brakes have failed but you are not critically in danger:
    • Get the car off the roadway and to a safe place to avoid stopping traffic or being involved in a rear-end collision.
    • You need to get out of traffic quickly. Move to the inside lane, or towards an exit from the road, or the hard shoulder if there is one.
    • USE YOUR INDICATORS to signal your intentions to other drivers.
    • If it is necessary to change lanes, do so smoothly and carefully, watching your mirrors and the traffic around you very closely. There's no way that other drivers will know that something's wrong, so you need to be very careful.
    • Once you're in the safest position possible, activate your hazard flashers so people know there's something wrong with your vehicle.
    • Let the car slow down gradually by taking your foot off the accelerator. Simply steer as your vehicle slows.
    • Shift into a lower gear. This allows the gearbox to bleed off some of your speed. In an automatic you'll want to choose PARK.
    • Once off the travelled roadway, gradually apply the parking brake until the vehicle stops.
    • If the parking brake has also failed, direct the car onto a soft shoulder or rub the wheel against a curb which will help you to slow down.
    • Steering rapidly left and right will also slow you down, iff it is safe to do so.
    • When safely off the road and stationary, put out flares, warning flags or reflective triangles beside and behind your vehicle to alert other drivers to the fact that you've stopped there. Keep your hazard flashers going.
    • If possible, send for professional assistance - if you're on a motorway you can use one of the phone boxes placed regularly along it, or use your mobile phone. First and foremost, call the ambulance if someone has been injured. Then you're best advised to call a motorway recovery service like the AA or the RAC.
    • Don't stand behind or next to your vehicle; if possible, stay away from the vehicle and wait for help to arrive. After all, you may well have just dumped it in the middle of a street.
  • IF YOU ARE ABOUT TO HIT SOMETHING AT HIGH SPEED
    • Take your foot off the accelerator so you don't hit it unnecessarily fast.
    • Steer towards the thing that looks the least dangerous. Wooden fencing is softer than a brick wall - a lake is preferable to a tree. If you don't really have a choice, something which is further away is preferable to something nearby. Just try to prolong the collision as much as possible. The longer you spend drifting without power, the slower you become, thanks to friction in the wheels. If there's something that could cushion your impact, like a pile of boxes, steer through it as it will slow you down slightly before the big crunch. DO NOT steer towards solid things like trees, or lamp-posts - these will not give way when you hit them.
    • Pull the handbrake and any other brakes your vehicle may have. Keep a tight hold on the wheel to keep control of your vehicle as you will stop VERY quickly.
    • If you have the stopping space and/or the handbrake is broken too, downshift to your lowest gear. This lets the gearbox take even more of your speed. This is actually an extremely effective braking method and much more controllable than handbraking, but the stopping distance is longer.
    • Nudge the curb with your wheel to slow yourself down.
    • If you have time, PUT YOUR SEATBELT ON.
  • If it becomes apparent that despite all of this, you are definitely going to hit something at high speed:
    • If there are passengers in your car, tell them what's going to happen as succintly as possible ("We're gonna crash!" is likely to inspire panic, but gets the message across), and if there's time, give them the rest of this advice:
    • If you haven't already done so, put your seatbelt on. An airbag is not a substitute for a seatbelt.
    • If you have time, secure all loose items on the back shelf or elsewhere - a tissue box moving at fifty miles per hour can put a hole in your head. Put them under your feet.
    • Duck.
    • Pray.
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, a NASCAR driver or an automotive engineer. I take no responsibility for the results if you follow these directions and they don't work or mess your situation up even more. That said, this is all based on actual experience, not just random extrapolation.

So there you are, driving along, you go to stop for a red light up ahead, and that always-firm, ever-reliable brake pedal suddenly feels like it's mounted to a bowl of warm tapioca. The first thing to remember is: DON'T PANIC. If you panic, you'll probably just shove the pedal to the floor and start hyperventilating. This is the absolute worst thing you can possibly do.

The second thing to remember is that you probably still have some stopping power. Maybe even quite a lot, if you can figure out where it is. Pump the brakes. If that works, you can just possibly get out of this with nothing more than a little underarm sweat and maybe a scuffed tire or two. Even if it doesn't, there are a still a couple of tricks up your sleeve.

Shift into neutral. This is safe to do even without stopping first on every automatic I've driven (unlike trying to shift straight into Park, which most transmissions just won't do at speed), and on manuals you don't use the brakes while shifting anyway. On a level road you'll notice your speed dropping immediately, maybe faster than you anticipated. Keep pumping your brakes after you do this -- both for whatever power they still have, and to be sure and warn the people behind you that you're stopping. If it's safe to do so, you may want to shift into a low-drive gear first -- the engine will brake you faster than tire friction. Be careful though -- many automatics won't shift to the lowest gear till you've dropped below 40 MPH or so, and if you find yourself rolling downhill and accelerating with the transmission fighting it, you can cause damage (especially if you roll far enough to exceed the lowest-gear-safe speed). At best you risk stalling the car and losing your power-steering assist when the engine cuts out, so be careful; if you have the level-ground distance to spare I advocate just going to neutral. drinkypoo advises that most manuals don't even have a synchro in first gear because it's so easy to blow up the transmission shifting straight into first. If that looks like Vulgate Sanskrit to you, read up on transmissions here:

Manual transmissions
Automatic transmissions

Ever see skiers on a hill? They don't just go straight downhill -- that's a good way to accelerate to a massively unstable speed, crash into an obstacle and die. Skiers go side-to-side, and so (assuming the road isn't slick or otherwise unsafe to do this on) should you. Wiggle the wheel from side to side a bit. This does two things: increases the distance you travel in a given amount of lane, and converts some of your car's energy to lateral motion instead of forward. Be very, very careful doing this -- in fact I hesitate to include it here, because it can go horribly wrong if you do it on a wet or icy road -- and think hard before you do it in the first place.

So by this point, one way or another, you're at least slowing down. Now take a second or three to look ahead of you. Are you still likely to hit cars up ahead? If so, flip on your hazard lights, tap your horn a couple of times, and maybe flash your headlights a time or two to get people's attention.

The last few miles per hour can be the toughest to shed. If you're going uphill, you're probably OK -- in fact you may have on your hands the new problem of how to avoid rolling backwards after coming to a stop. It's not good for your transmission, but you can shift back into gear and out of it in cycles until you can get into a stable point where you don't need the brakes to stay stopped (if your parking brake still works, this is the time to use it -- it's useless at speed and you'll just burn it out if you try to stop with it right off). (Some cars don't have a separate parking brake, the lever merely engages one or more of the existing brake assemblies, therefore if you have no regular brakes, you may have no parking brake either. So don't depend on this to work, but it's always worth a try.) If you're in the lowest drive gear, this may be the point where you finally shift out of it into neutral.

If you're going downhill, or you're on level ground and still going too fast, this is the time to look for a safe crash site. Rubbing curbs will often bring you to a stop (while not being great for your tires, but that, at this point, is a lesser issue). Try to avoid utility poles, in favor of larger, denser things like Jersey barriers that you can sideswipe. Use shoulder lanes and empty travel lanes for additional distance if they're there; it's part of what shoulder lanes are for. Try to get over to the right if you can -- you have a better chance of sliding by to the right and making a turn (relatively) safely than going straight through or making a left.

If worse comes to worst, and you just can't avoid hitting other cars, try to at least do it at an angle, not straight-on. A straight-on rear-end crash can push them into the cars in front, up to 3 or 4 cars ahead in line.

In the aftermath, try to remember what you observed leading up to the point where you lost the brakes. Was there smoke? Could be a busted seal -- that smoke might be leaking brake fluid vaporizing between pad and rotor. Did you lose the brakes all at once or gradually over a couple of stops? Was there a squealing or grinding noise? A funny smell? Your car is going into the shop after this, and all these things can help the mechanic figure out what went wrong, if it's not obvious, and check to see if you're in danger of it going wrong somewhere else.

Lastly, like any good information provider, I have to end with the appeal for help. If you have corrections or additions to any of the above, feel free to send them to me (or, if you're a noder, just contribute them as writeups of your own).

I was once going to buy a car to do up, which had brakes, but the aforementioned brakes were located in the boot. This lead to much brainstorming about how to transfer the car from it's current location to where I wanted it without resorting to having it towed.

I didn't end up buying the car.

Obviously, this makes me the expert on driving cars without brakes. The most important thing to do, after you've pumped the brake pedal and still found it unresponsive is not to shift into neutral, but to change to the lowest gear possible, either first or second in a manual. Most automatics have low gears too for use in steep ascents or towing heavy loads (in the cars I'm familiar with they're labelled '2' or '3'). You've probably never used them before, but now is the time. If you've ever tried shifting into second while travelling at speed, you will know that there is an explosive decelleration and the engine will scream. More importantly, there will be very little loss of traction as all the wheels are still moving - This is a safe way of washing off speed in wet or icy conditions, and the instruction manual for my car actually recommends this on steep descents to control your speed. If you have a lot of time, you can downshift in stages to save the strain on your engine.

By the time you've changed into a low gear, you should be travelling slow enough to gently apply the handbrake. Don't jam it on, as most likely you'll still be travelling fast enough to skid.
mkb and rougevert pointed out quite rightly that often the low gears on a manual are labelled 'L' and 'S' instead of '2' and '3', which makes 'DSL' if you're a nerd, and 'LSD' if you're a druggie.

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