How to Stop a Car with No Brakes

How to Stop a Car with No Brakes

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How to Stop a Car with No Brakes

Explore this ArticleDownshifting to StopSlowing the Car in Other WaysArticle SummaryQuestions & AnswersRelated ArticlesReferences

Imagine you’re exiting the freeway on a ramp, and start braking. Unfortunately, nothing happens. Of course, your heart is going to start beating too fast, but try not to panic. Take a few deep breaths, and use your engine to try to slow the car down. If that doesn’t work, you may need to use friction, such as a guardrail, to slow the car.


EditDownshifting to Stop

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    Turn your hazard lights on to warn other drivers. While they may not be able to figure out what the problem is, your hazard lights will tell other drivers to proceed with caution and pay attention to what your vehicle is doing. Your hazard light button should be somewhere on your dashboard, and the symbol for them is an orange triangle inside an orange triangle.
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    Take your foot off the gas and/or turn off the cruise control. Lifting off the gas will begin to slow the car down, just by virtue of friction and gravity. Also, your cruise control system should turn off as soon as you touch the brake or clutch, but to be safe, make sure to switch it off manually.
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    Shift into a lower gear. If you’re driving a manual, press the clutch and downshift into the next gear down. This will begin to slow the car. Keep shifting down as you feel the car slow down. If you’re in an automatic, use the gear selector to shift to second. Then, shift to first (also sometimes marked as “L” or “lower”).[1]

    • While you may be feeling panicked, you don’t need to downshift all at once. Let the car slow down naturally if you’re not in danger of hitting something.
    • Most automatics have a second and first gear on the gear selector.
    • If you have tap-to-shift, shift into manual “M” (generally to the right or left of “Drive” on console-shift vehicles or the bottom gear on column-shift vehicles) and press the minus button to shift down. Again, if you can’t go directly into the lowest range, try gradually shifting down.
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    Pull over to the side of the road. Look for a place to get off the road. You want to cause as little damage as possible to you and other vehicles, so get away from the main thoroughfare if possible. If you’re on the freeway, get off it if you can.[2]

    • If you can’t get off the freeway, use the shoulder.
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    Pump the brakes to try to stop. When your brakes fail, often they will only partially fail. You may still have some brakes in place, and pumping the brakes may be enough to slow you to a complete stop. After pumping a few times, press the brakes all the way to the floor to see if you have any pressure left.[3]

    • Pump quickly to build up friction.
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    Try the emergency (parking) brake at lower speeds. If you still aren’t stopped, pull up on the emergency brake. That’s usually the large lever that’s next to the driver’s seat in most cars, though in some, it may be a pedal you push. The emergency brake may still be working even if your other brakes aren’t.[4]

    • Pull the parking brake slowly, holding the release button as you do if your car has one. If you tug on it too quickly, you may cause your wheels to lock. If you have an electric parking brake, they may lock anyway.[5]
    • It’s a good idea to try to slow the car before pulling the emergency brake. If your tires do lock, you can skid at high speeds.
    • If you feel or hear your tires lock, release a small bit of pressure from the brake application and hold it there.


Slowing the Car in Other Ways

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    Open your windows to create air resistance in your car. This action won’t stop the car on its own. However, it may help to slow you down a little. Plus, it enables you to shout to other passengers and drivers as needed.

    • Roll all the windows down that you can.
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    Turn up a hill to slow yourself down. If you can, look for a road that’s going uphill, even if it’s only slightly. If your car isn’t braking, the slope may slow it down enough to come to a stop. For instance, even going up an on-ramp may slow you down, but be sure to stay out of the way of other cars if possible.[6]

    • However, don’t try to turn into an uphill driveway, as you may not stop before you hit buildings.
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    Turn the key to the “off” position if you can’t stop. If other methods fail, turning the engine off can at least cut your speed off. Wait until you’ve slowed down as much as you possibly can before trying this method, as suddenly shutting the engine off can make you swerve. It can also damage your engine, though, so leave this as a last resort.[7]

    • Do not turn your engine to “lock,” though, as that will also lock your wheel. You still need to be able to steer.
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    Drag your car as a last resort. If you absolutely can’t stop your car another way, try dragging it along or over something to slow it. For instance, run the car along a curb or wall barrier, which will slow it, though it will likely destroy it in the process.[8]

    • You can also try driving in a straight line across mud or gravel. If you turn, though, it can cause the car to flip.
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    Keep your eyes on the road and continue to steer. Pay attention to what’s in front of you, and maneuver to avoid heavy traffic, pedestrians, and dangerous obstacles. You may be close to stopping, but you could still cause damage if you’re not paying attention.


This video from features nationally recognized driver safety expert Dr. William Van Tassel, Manager of Driver Training Operations at the American Automobile Association’s (AAA) National Headquarters. He explains different types of braking systems, how to tell what system you have, and what to do if your brakes go out.


  • You can avoid most instances of brake failure by regularly checking your brake fluid and changing it according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. You should also have your entire brake system inspected at regular intervals or if you notice any change in the performance of your brakes. Don’t put off making necessary repairs or performing routine maintenance.
  • That red “brake light” comes on for a lot of reasons, not just to tell you that your parking brake is engaged. Every time you start the car, see if it flashes to make sure it’s working. If it comes on while you’re driving, you’ve lost at least half of your braking system. If it comes on while you’re applying the brakes, you have a problem – most likely low brake fluid or a faulty master cylinder.
  • Do not shift an automatic transmission into park when moving. The parking pawl that binds the transmission will not be able to support a moving car.
  • Dial for emergency services as soon as you can.
  • Brakes can become less effective if they get wet, especially after hydroplaning or going through deeper water. When going into such water, it’s best to apply light acceleration or even downshift. When exiting the water or recovering from a hydroplaning incident, press the brakes down moderately lightly, release, wait, and reapply (but do not pump). If the pedal feels spongy and soft reapply the brakes a few more times in the same way to dry them.


  • Once you manage to stop the vehicle, do not attempt to drive it again until you are sure the problem is fixed.
  • Many “brake failure” cases are brought about by an object getting stuck under the brake pedal, such as a toy or a soda bottle. Avoid this situation by keeping your car clean and free of debris, especially the area around the driver’s seat.