What Should I Do If My Brakes Fail?

Red Brake Check Light on the Dashboard of a Vehicle

Brake failure is one of the scariest things that can happen to you while driving. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), crashes caused by issues with braking systems account for roughly 22% of car accidents in the U.S. each year. Especially for semi-truck drivers and other heavy transportation vehicles – which can weigh over 80,000 pounds – having a faulty brake system puts you and everyone else on the road in imminent danger.

You can avoid this from happening by inspecting your brakes or getting them checked out regularly by a professional. Keeping tabs on your brake system’s performance not only prevents malfunctions down the road but can improve the overall performance of your semi-truck. If you experience brake failure, be sure to stay calm, but alert, and maneuver the best way to get off the road as safely as possible.



What Causes Brake Failure in Trucks?

Knowing the tell-tale signs of brake failure can save your life; by noticing even the slightest of differences in your brakes, you can avoid dealing with a full-fledged “brake”-down and fix your vehicle before it gets any worse. Here are just a few causes that contribute to brake system failures in trucks:

  • Uneven Brakes

    A brake imbalance occurs when each brake does not apply the same amount of force to slow your truck down. Worn brake pads, discs, and even damaged pistons or brake calipers can be reasons why this happens to your brakes. You may notice this if your rig veers to one side or the other while slowing down. Get your brakes checked out immediately if you notice these things happening.

  • Improper Loading

    Loading a rig improperly causes uneven distribution, which puts pressure on your brakes and can cause them to overheat while you’re driving. Know what the maximum load limit is for your truck and secure your load correctly so you don’t deal with uneven weight distribution.

  • Improper Maintenance

    Your truck’s brakes should be inspected regularly to ensure they work normally. Beyond just looking for issues, your brake system should be functioning the way it’s designed and that any emergency brake systems are set up properly to be deployed for certain situations. Don’t overlook these parts.

  • Overbraking

    Needless braking causes things like brake pads to wear down over time. Don’t brake if you don’t have to and give yourself enough distance between vehicles in front of you so that you don’t have to suddenly slow down if something happens. With so much force grinding to a halt, your brake system can be put under extreme pressure and may fail.

  • Brake Lock-Up

    Brake Lock-Up happens when you apply the brakes, but they do not return to their “rest” position as expected. Damaged brake system components contribute to brake lock-ups in semi-trucks such as improper brake fluid, overheating, worn brake pads and rotors, worn brake drums and shoes, and seized wheel cylinders.

  • Damaged Air System

    Any cracks or damages to the semi-truck’s airline system as a whole can cause the brake system to fade. With not enough pneumatic pressure to force your truck to slow down, this puts you in very dangerous situations while driving.


Truck Driver's hands on the steering wheel


5 Ways to Slow Down If Your Brakes Fail

It can be hard to think rationally when you’re in these situations. However, there are a few things you should do if you experience your brakes failing on you while you’re driving:

  1. Downshift
    Keep your foot off the accelerator pedal and downshift your semi-truck. When dealing with manual transmission, shifting down to a lower gear allows the engine to slow down the vehicle. For automatic transmission, simply letting your foot off the gas should make the engine downshift to help slow it down as well.

  2. Use Emergency Brakes to Stop
    Attempt to deploy the emergency brakes once your truck has slowed down enough. This should be done very carefully, as doing so can cause your rig to skid. If you encounter this while attempting to slow down, release the emergency brake before you start completely spinning out.

  3. Pump Brakes
    You can pump the brake pedal rapidly to try and generate enough pressure to slow your vehicle down and pull it off to the side of the road. If the pedal goes to the floor, pump the brakes a few times before pushing it completely to the floor. This can also give yourself enough pressure to slow your rig down.

  4. Use an Escape Ramp
    Truckers can pull off on escape ramps that provide an incline to slow their trucks down. Be careful, however, as your rig may end up rolling back down the hill if you’re not paying attention.

  5. Find an Escape Route
    If escape ramps are not available, find another method of getting off the highway while continuing to slow down your vehicle. Look for an open field or side street that’s going to give you enough friction to slow yourself down naturally. Be cautious of other vehicles around you and avoid others at all costs while you do this.



What You Should NOT Do When Your Brakes Fail

  • Don't downshift too fast.
  • Don't turn off your truck.
  • Don't use emergency brakes immediately.
  • Don't shift into reverse.


Tow Truck towing a semi truck with no semi trailer

Towing a Semi-Truck

Towing a semi truck takes a lot of power from specialized vehicles such as integrated tow trucks, fifth-wheel wrecker units, or other heavy duty vehicles that can pull the weight of entire semi trucks. If your truck is in need of a tow, call someone with these vehicles to help get you out safely. You'll also need the proper towing and auto hauling items to hook up to your semi truck, including:

Make sure you have the necessary items prepared in your truck or vehicle at all times, but especially in the wintertime when pulling vehicles out of snow can be a little more time-consuming. 

More Reads That You May Like:

Winter Truck Maintenance: 10 Tips to Prepare Your Truck for Winter

4 Important Nighttime Driving Tips for Truck Drivers

9 Types of Trailers in the Trucking Industry, and Which Fits Your Freight Needs

4 Spring Driving Safety Tips for Truck Drivers

Flatbed Starter Kits Convenient for New Drivers, Growing Fleets

4 Simple Ways to Get the Best Fuel Mileage for Your Semi-Truck



If you have any questions about our trucking & transportation products, give our team of experts a call at 866-444-9990 or by emailing customerservice@uscargocontrol.com.

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