On March 4, a pickup truck crashed into a Fairmont, West Virginia, liquor store after the driver swerved to avoid striking a pedestrian. On March 30, a church van crashed into a canal in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, killing the driver and seven passengers. What caused both accidents? The vehicles’ brakes failed.

Most crashes are caused by human error, but brake failure or degradation is cited in 25 percent of crashes when a vehicle problem is the main reason for the crash, according to a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "Brake failure is rare, but it can still happen, so it’s good to know how to respond,” says Bill Van Tassel, PhD, AAA's manager of driver training programs. 

Here's what to do. 

Related: 6 Mistakes Drivers Make After a Car Accident

1. Stay calm and steer. Steer smoothly, use your mirrors and signal when turning or changing lanes, advises the Utah Safety Council. “Also keep your eyes on the road to help maintain an open path ahead,” says Van Tassel.

2. Try to get the brakes working again.

  • If you have ABS brakes: If you have four-wheel ABS (Anti-Lock Braking System) brakes (check your owner's manual if you're not sure), apply steady and firm pressure to the brake pedal. “Since ABS brakes will not lock up when used hard, it’s OK to use them very aggressively if needed,” says Van Tassel. If you have rear-wheel ABS brakes, which is common in light trucks, the California Department of Motor Vehicles suggests you ease up on the pedal, reducing pressure just enough so the front wheels start rolling again.
  • If you don't have ABS brakes: Most experts advise pumping the brake pedal rapidly to build up pressure. Don't keep your foot jammed down on the brake, or the wheels might lock Alternatively, Van Tassel recommends a similar strategy called threshold braking. “Apply the brakes aggressively, right up until the tires begin to lock up. Then ease up the brake pedal just a very little bit, just enough to allow the tires to start rolling again, and then squeeze down firmly again.”

3. If your brakes won't respond, or if you need help slowing down while working the brakes:

  • Shift your transmission into a lower gear or neutral.
  • Apply the parking brake. This can also lock your rear wheels, so keep your hand on the brake release. That way you can release it immediately if you start to skid.
  • As a last resort, steer into any relatively safe obstacle. For instance, you can drive into bushes or scrape the wheels against a curb or embankment.

4. Find an escape route away from traffic, such as into a right lane, shoulder or exit ramp. If possible, get off the roadway completely. Sound your horn and flash your lights to warn drivers and pedestrians in your path.

5. After your vehicle has finally stopped:

  • Turn off the ignition. Do not turn it off while still moving, or you may lose the ability to steer.
  • Turn on your emergency flashers, deploy road flares, set out red warning triangles or tie a white object to the antennae. The goal is to warn oncoming traffic of your presence. Avoid standing behind or next to the vehicle, or an unaware driver might accidentally hit you.
  • Call for a tow truck. “Do not drive the vehicle until the brakes are repaired,” says Van Tassel. “A vehicle not starting is bad enough; not being able to stop a moving vehicle could be much worse.”

Related: What to Do if Your Car Plunges Into Water

Preventing brake failure

AAA recommends reading your vehicle owner’s manual to learn how your auto's brake system works. They also suggest having your brakes checked before a road trip.

Van Tassel recommends practicing what you'd do in a real emergency. “In a safe area, away from all other traffic, cyclists and pedestrians, practice slowing and bringing the vehicle to a stop without pressing the brake pedal,” he says. “This helps you run through your response before you are actually faced with loss of braking ability.”

Related: What to Do if You're the Victim of Road Rage

David Arv Bragi is a freelance journalist and marketing consultant. He has been writing about health and safety issues since the 1990s and currently lives in Portland, Oregon.