How to stop a car with failed brakes using the transmission

In the event of brake failure, there are safe tricks to use to bring a vehicle to a stop to avoid an accident. Gradual downshifting is an effective way to safely stop a car by using engine braking.
Last modified
11 Feb, 2024
Failed brakes

The brakes of a car are used to slow the car or bring it to a stop when needed. Just like any other system, they are failure prone and a vehicle with a failed brake can lead to an accident or even death.

Different types of brake in a vehicle

There are majorly two types of brakes which are:

1. Foot brakes.

The foot brake is the one used for normal driving to slow down or stop a vehicle. This system uses hydraulics to apply brakes at each wheel of the vehicle.

2. Emergency brakes (this can be foot or hand operated, depending on the vehicle). 

This is used as an emergency brake in case of main brake failure. It is also used as parking brake in order to keep the vehicle secured in a stationary position when parked and in order not to place the whole weight of the vehicle on the transmission parking prawl.


Different types of vehicle braking

1. Normal braking

This involves the use of the foot pedal to apply hydraulic brakes to slow down or stop the vehicle.

2. Engine braking

This involves the use of engine braking force the slow down a vehicle. It is this technique that is used when the transmission is used to decelerate a vehicle.

There is another type called regenerative braking which is mostly used by electric and hybrid cars.


How to use engine braking to stop a vehicle by using the transmission

Engine braking is not used only when there is a main brake failure. It is a skill every good driver should possess. Since we are discussing a way to safely stop a vehicle when there is a brake failure, below are the steps to follow in a brake failure emergency situation:


Engine braking with a manual transmission

1. Downshift to the next gear.

2. Keep downshifting to continue to slow the vehicle.

3. When the vehicle has significantly slowed down, apply emergency brake to brink it to a complete stop.


Engine braking with an automatic transmission

1. If the vehicle has only PRND meaning park, reverse, neutral and drive, simply take your foot off the brake and allow the car to slow down gradually. If the car has other gears like PRND321, continue to downshift till you get to the lowest gear. Remember to leave the gear on drive and not on neutral position.

2. When the vehicle has slowed significantly, apply emergency brake to bring it to a stop faster.


It is a good practice to turn on the emergency lights and headlight to give other oncoming vehicles signal that you are in a situation. This will protect you and other road users.