Car Brake failure – Is your car at risk?
The NTSA often quotes brake failure as the cause of accidents on Kenyan roads, alongside careless driving, drunk driving and poor maintenance of cars. While the cases are usually catastrophic in larger and older vehicles such as trucks and buses, small cars also experience brake failure and are sometimes involved in serious crashes as a result. What causes brakes to fail especially in small cars?
It is definitely better to know how your brakes may fail by reading than practically, when you are going downhill somewhere on Thika Road, Mombasa Road or along a major highway. Here are some tell-tale signs of impending brake failure on your car.
Oily spill on rims
If you notice a shiny spill on your rims that looks like oil, do not dismiss it. Rubber seals on your brake cylinder may be on their way out and may be allowing brake fluid to leak.
Usually, the spill will be in the inside of the rims and on the inner walls of the tires. If you ignore this leak, the next time you may remember it is when your car refuses to slow down as you hurtle down a steep slope.
If you notice that you need to apply more effort on your brakes to stop the car, then there is a chance that you have impending brake failure.
Most post 2000 cars came with a pressure supported braking system that requires engine pressure to break properly (This is also a reason why you must never switch your car off when it is in motion). A problem with the hydraulic and pneumatic systems in your car will lead to loss of braking pressure. If unchecked, one day you may find that you have no brakes left.
If you start hearing a high pitched shrill when you are applying your brakes, your car is telling you that your brake pads are due for replacement. The asbestos used for friction surfaces for brake pads eventually run out and the metallic mold of the brake pads get into direct contact with the brake discs.
Deal with the worn out break pads as soon as you can because you may experience catastrophic loss of braking power especially if you are driving through a wet stretch.
Also Read – 8 Tips You Need To Follow After A Car Accident
Low brake fluid level
Low brake fluid level is also another good sign of impending brake failure. When you check your oil, also make a point of checking the brake fluid level for your car. The fluid level will naturally sink as the brake pads wear out.
However, the level should never fall below the rated low limit. Low brake fluid level may point out to leakage on brake fluid pipes, a very dangerous situation. If you notice a systematic reduction in brake fluid level, have your entire braking system checked and serviced.
Whenever your braking system is serviced, and especially when it involves draining the brake fluid, the system must be properly bled to remove air pockets.
Air can be compressed, and hence any air in your brake lines will absorb the pressure you need to stop your car. If you notice that your brakes are spongy after a change of brake fluid, get it sorted immediately!
What to do if you lose your car brakes?
Picture this-just after passing Kinungi on your way to Naivasha, you notice your car is not braking as you descend the long and steep incline. What do you do? While this may be one of the most dangerous places to lose your brakes, realize that any time you lose your brakes even in a traffic jam in the city, you become a danger to yourself and to other road users.
Also Read – How Much Does Car Insurance Cost in Kenya?
Here are simple things you can do to reduce the risk of an accident, and with some luck, to bring your car to a complete halt.
First, you need to understand that your car has three braking options. Yes, three of them!
You are definitely acquainted with the pedal operated standard brake. This is the one you currently use to stop your car. There is also the hand brake. You also use this one every time you park your car.
Technically it is a brake. The third one, which is more subtle, is engine braking. Let’s talk about it a bit. It’s a little bit easier to explain using a manual car, but works just the same with automatic cars.
Engine braking is when a car uses the engines own power (or is it the lack of it?) to slow down. In reality, it’s the gearbox that actually does the hard work. Here’s what happens. When you accelerate, your car shifts into higher gears.
This reduces the revolutions the engine must make to maintain the current speed. If you are keen to listen to lorries or other noisy manual cars, you will notice a pause between the gear changes, as the driver shifts from one gear to another.
Just before the pause, the engine is usually at its noisiest, and when the new gear is engaged, it becomes less noisy, working its way up to higher noise level again as the car gains momentum. Drivers repeat this process until the highest gear is attained. Now engine braking works in reverse.
Say your car is in fourth gear, and the revolutions per minute reads say 2500. When you shift the car to third gear, the RPMs will shift to say, 3500. If you don’t accelerate, the RPMs will start reducing since the cars wheels, through the gearbox are struggling to turn engine parts.
This will help reduce the speed of the car. This is partly why the NTSA requires all cars to remain on-gear (free-wheeling prohibited) as they descend at Salgaa-that notorious blackspot.
For automatic cars, when your car hits the high hears, step on the brakes gently, and you will notice the car suddenly shifts to a lower gear and helps you maintain a low speed during your descent.
If you plan to survive a catastrophic loss of your brakes, here are some things you should bear in mind
A car that won’t accelerate well enough is frustrating. This frustration pales in comparison to the thought of being in a car that won’t break. Its dreadful. The pure fear that it brings can make you freeze and start rehearsing your opening line as you meet your maker. Panicking makes you lose focus and usually is the first step towards assured destruction.
Do your best to remain focused on the driving, since one way or another you will stop. Always remember to put on the hazard light (and possibly your full lights) to warn motorists on both sides that you are in some kind of trouble.
Use Engine Braking to Slow down that car.
As we have explained above, when all brakes fail, your engine is your friend. Lower the gear manually if you drive a manual car, and allow the car short intervals to reduce the speed before shifting to the next gear.
If your car has a tiptronic transmission (or any that allows you to switch to manual mode), go manual and shift to the lower gears and let the engine do the rest of the work for you.
This procedure will make it possible for you to cut down your speed to lower speeds, where even if you crashed, you would have a shot at surviving.
Use your hand brake
This option usually sounds counter intuitive at first because handbrakes are used only when a car has stopped. The hand brake is available, and in most cases, its usually in perfect working order when your main brakes fail. The handbrake though has a very small amount of braking power compared to the normal brakes.
Apply the handbrakes gently but consistently and leave the gear lever in drive position to the end of your ordeal. If you have a foot activated handbrake (see the misnomer), press it gently but consistently until it reaches the lowest level.
Chances are that even after applying the full power of the handbrake the car will still be moving but will be slowing down consistently.
Don’t put the gear to Free (Neutral), Park or Reverse, or switch off engine
Depending on whether your car is manual or automatic, don’t under any circumstances put your car in the neutral gear because you will lose the benefit of engine braking.
Similarly, don’t be tempted to put the gear in Park, unless you enjoy the sound of metallic parts being crushed together to form steel wool and iron filings.
The metal we are talking about is your engine. Also, don’t ever try to put the car in reverse gear. Your gear box will never forgive you for it, and the car will still not stop.
Putting the car off will only compound the problem because you will lose power steering capabilities, and any pressure support your brakes may have had. Worst case, your steering wheel may lock.
If all else fails, crash on your own terms
As a final option, if the car refuses to stop completely, then you need to crash at your own terms. Forget the damage to the car that you will have to deal with later, you have car insurance for that (and hopefully, its comprehensive). If you are on open road and you have the option of crashing into a bush, take that option.
Avoid trees by all means, unless that are young and can bend. If you are in a crowded place, you are better off grazing the sides of parked cars to reduce your speed, rather than having a head on collision with oncoming cars. Your insurer will hate you for this, but at least you will be alive to receive the hate.
It is also in theory better to crash into the back of the car ahead of you that’s going in the same direction, rather than the option of a head on collision. There will be damage, but survival chances are higher.