Did my non-ABS brakes cause an accident?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Jan 01, 2003

Dear Tom and Ray:

I know you are both big fans of the Toyota Camry, so I'm hoping you can help. I have a 2000 Toyota Camry LE with 48,000 miles on it. Last week, I had the front brakes replaced at a Toyota dealership. I was driving on a busy freeway in Michigan today, when everyone in the right lane stopped suddenly. I, too, slammed on my new brakes, and my car swerved back and forth and finally spun around into oncoming traffic. A truck heading right for me hit me on the front driver's side, but luckily I walked away from the accident without a scratch. My question is: Why did the car swerve when I slammed on the brakes? I don't have anti-lock brakes, and the road was bone dry. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks! -- Carrie

RAY: Geez. That's frightening, isn't it? There are few things that'll make you evacuate yourself faster than sliding backward on a highway, looking straight at the people who WERE behind you.

TOM: But my guess is that the recent brake job had little or nothing to do with you spinning around, Carrie. Here's my guess as to what happened: You slammed on your brakes. Since you don't have an anti-lock braking system, your brakes locked up and your car started to skid, with the back end coming around.

RAY: You then tried to correct and steer into the skid. But, like most people who don't skid a lot, you overcorrected. That sent the back end the other way. You overcorrected again, repeating this process, with each correction getting bigger due to the momentum of the car, until the car spun all the way around.

TOM: So you are a walking, breathing advertisement for anti-lock brakes. By preventing the brakes from ever locking up, ABS allows you to keep steering the car during an emergency stop. So if you wanted to stop in a straight line, you could have. Or if you had needed to veer around a stopped car or other obstacle while stopping, you could have done that, too.

RAY: Now, it's possible that your recent brake service played some role in all of this. If the mechanic just replaced your brake pads and didn't machine your discs, that might have caused the brakes to pull when you slammed them on. Sometimes disc brakes will pull in one direction or the other for a few days until the pads properly seat to the discs. So that might have been a contributing factor.

TOM: But there's nothing the brake guys could have done to cause the car to swerve back and forth. That had to be your reaction to the skid.

RAY: What you might want to do is go to a wet or snowy parking lot some Sunday morning before the stores open, and practice putting your car into a skid with no traffic or other obstacles around. That way, you'll have a feel for what the proper amount of correction is when you do need to make an emergency maneuver.

TOM: And next time, get the ABS.

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