Human Condition: Catching a break during car’s total brake failure _lowres


First, I apologize to the person in the red truck I nearly clipped at the bottom of the Interstate 10 exit ramp. And, to the driver I turned in front of at the next intersection. And to the guy who saw me climb the curb and cut around him at the next stop sign.

Really, I’m sorry, but I couldn’t stop. I wasn’t in a hurry; I couldn’t stop. I. Could. Not. Stop.

I don’t recommend it, but the adrenaline rush one gets from total brake failure is amazing, especially when traveling on I-10 in Baton Rouge.

On the Friday before Labor Day, my wife, Sandy, and I were leaving town in our old but trusty van for a long weekend at the Wildwood Resort on Toledo Bend Reservoir. We got on I-10 at Essen Lane and headed west. Seeing traffic building as we crested the overpass at the 10/12 split, I tried to slow down and noted that the brakes felt mushy.

A moment later, I pressed the pedal again, and it went straight to the floor.

“We have no brakes,” I said. And we didn’t. The emergency brake didn’t work, either.

Sandy, wisely, began silently praying.

Viable options were few. The left two lanes were a solid mass of slowing vehicles, with the third lane only slightly less busy. Those exiting at College Drive were backed up well onto the highway’s exit-only lane, eliminating that route or even that shoulder of the highway. The remaining lane, which would eventually require an exit at Acadian Thruway, seemed the only choice.

This may or may not have been smart — wonderful thing, hindsight — but I lightly pressed the accelerator to avoid being rear-ended by those who had brakes but poor attention spans. Somewhere between College and Acadian, Sandy turned on the emergency flashers and I put the van in neutral. Again, that may or may not have been smart, since we were traveling slightly downhill and our speed didn’t seem to slow.

So, entering Acadian, I veered to the roadside grass to avoid a northbound red truck, then returned to the road. A Chevron station might have been a perfect port in this storm, but we couldn’t have stopped without hitting something, so on we rolled toward Bawell Street, where a red traffic signal awaited.

We turned right, and I thought: At the other end of Bawell are a couple of auto repair businesses. We could limp the van there!

There is a scientific phrase for this type of thinking, and that phrase is “dumb as a bag of hammers.” As if to prove it, I had to hop a curb and pass another vehicle on the right at the next stop sign.

When sanity returned, I found a safe place to pull over, called a tow truck and thanked God we were alive and, except for the brakes, undamaged. We’ve marveled at how easily things might have ended differently. We’ve wondered how fast we were traveling at various points of this odyssey. (If you think I ever took my eyes off the road to check the speedometer, there is a scientific phrase for this type of thinking.)

Since then, I’ve searched online for advice on how to handle this situation. Some of it (shift into a lower gear) might have helped. Some of it (don’t turn the engine off, because you’ll lose power steering) confirmed our reactions. All of it made me realize how unprepared I’d been. It had never occurred to me to think what I’d do if my brakes failed.

Until they did.

Advocate readers may submit stories of about 500 words to the Human Condition at or The Advocate, EatPlayLive, 7290 Bluebonnet Blvd., Baton Rouge, LA 70810. There is no payment, and stories will be edited. Authors should include their city of residence.