Lethal Brake Failure Risk For 1 In 3 Vehicles

Brake Fluid Check

Brake Fluid Check

The brakes on a third of all cars could fail without notice, a new report warns.

Tests carried out by independent service garages on behalf of car care company, Comma, found 1 in 2 motorists had defective braking systems, with 29 per cent of them so poor they were unintentionally risking their lives every day.

The firm checked the quality of the brake fluid - the liquid which allows the braking system to work - of nearly 700 vehicles, many of them family cars, across the country.

Over time brake fluid absorbs water from the atmosphere, which reduces its effectiveness by lowering the boiling point.

Brake fluid testing experts, Alba Diagnostics, recommend replacing defective fluid when it begins to boil at 200 degrees Celsius. Anything below 180 degrees Celsius is potentially lethal but, shockingly, some of the cars tested by Comma were as low as 100 degrees - the same as water.

Table Illustrating Boiling Points of Braking Fluid
Temperature °C Percentage of Vehicles
<181 29%
181-200 23%
201-250 33%
>250 15%

At one of the testing stations an alarming 70 per cent of vehicles were defective with 44 per cent of them unroadworthy.

Researchers found that the problem is not necessarily linked to the age and mileage of the vehicle, with 1 in 5 vehicles with 120,000 miles or more on the clock showing boiling temperatures of below 180 degrees.

The problem has been labelled the 'silent killer' by commentators given its phantom characteristics of sudden, unexpected brake failure.

"One minute your brakes are working, the next they aren't," explains Mike Bewsey of Comma. "Once your brake fluid is contaminated, there is a much greater risk that it will boil. This can happen under stop-start conditions, heavy braking or towing. There is no warning, and once the brake fluid has cooled down again braking function appears normal."

Comma believes the research, the most comprehensive to date on the issue, supports the theory that poor brake fluid could be responsible for thousands of serious accidents every year.

Bewsey adds: "There is a real lack of knowledge amongst drivers of the importance of brake fluid, and how it works. Brake fluid is a safety critical item and it's important that this is recognised and its boiling point tested on a regular basis."

The 'phantom' brake failures are tricky for the police to pinpoint, because if the brakes are tested mechanically after an accident, when the fluid has cooled down, braking function will appear normal.  Only by testing the boiling point can the real cause be identified.

Acting Chief Inspector Mick Turner, of the Collision Investigation Unit at the Metropolitan Police, said: "We see too many victims of road accidents every year who have suffered a crash simply as a result of not maintaining their car properly. It's important that motorists remember to maintain every part of their car's safe running, that is after all why car manufacturers recommend set regular service intervals. 

"Clearly, the onus is on the driver to make sure their car is safe, and that includes aspects of their car that they might not normally think to check, such as brake fluid."

9 November 2006 Staff

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