Are you a safe stopper? How to brake safely

Crawford Frazer

Driving safety includes many components, from keeping your car in good condition, to eliminating distractions to obeying traffic laws and speed limits. But one of the most important aspects is knowing how to stop. Whether it's a routine stop at a stop sign or a sudden one to avoid a collision with the car ahead, it's vital to understand how to use your brakes safely, regardless of road conditions.

Braking on wet or icy roads

The best safety tip for driving in bad weather is to not drive at all. However, if hitting the road isn't negotiable, do the following:

  • Allow three times more space than usual between your car and the car ahead.
  • When you need to stop, gently press the brake pedal to avoid skidding.
  • Use low gears for better traction, and don't use cruise control.
  • Bridges, overpasses and roads with little traffic will freeze first, so be especially careful when braking on these roads.

Also, Weather.com provides these tips if your car starts skidding when you try to brake:

  • When rear wheels skid: Take your foot off the accelerator and steer in the direction you want the front wheels to go. If your rear wheels start sliding the other way as you recover, ease the steering wheel toward that side. You may have to turn your wheel right and left a few times to get your vehicle back under your control. Pump your brakes (if you have standard brakes) or apply steady pressure (if you have antilock brakes).
  • When front wheels skid: Take your foot off the gas and shift to neutral. Don't try to steer right away. As the wheels skid sideways, they'll slow the vehicle and traction will return. As traction returns, steer in the direction you want to go. Then put your car back in "drive" or release the clutch, and accelerate gently.

Tips for antilock braking systems

Antilock brakes allow you to keep more control over your car, but won't necessarily reduce your stopping distance, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Yet because they help you maintain control, they may end up shortening your stopping distance anyway.
If you have a standard braking system, you may be familiar with the advice to pump your brakes if you need to stop on slick surfaces. This is not the case with antilock brakes, which do the pumping for you. NHTSA recommends putting your foot firmly on the brake pedal; the ABS system automatically will pump the brakes. You'll feel the brakes pulse. Also, remember that you have steering control, so steer around any hazards.

When your brakes fail

When your brakes go out entirely, heed these three steps from Texas online driving safety educator DefensiveDriving.com:

  1. Downshift to a lower gear.
  2. If you have standard brakes, pump the brake pedal quickly to build brake fluid pressure.
  3. If this hasn't worked after four pumps, gradually pull the parking brake. Your car probably will skid.

If the parking brake doesn't work, keep the car in a low gear and steer in a safe direction until your car rolls to stop. Honk your horn and turn on your hazard lights to alert other drivers.
Being confident in your ability to stop your car can help you avoid a serious accident -- and an auto insurance claim -- when every split second counts.

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