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vol 07-02-12 06:03 AM

Accidents caused by non/mal-functioning brakes?
Every time I'm riding down a slope, I worry what if the brakes suddenly stopped working. I would think this kind of accidents happen easily, but have never seen a report about it. Has anyone here heard or even experienced such scaring accidents?

dynodonn 07-02-12 07:42 AM

The only time that I had serious braking issues was during my earlier commuting days on bicycles with chrome plated steel wheels, rock hard brake pads, and forgetting to "dry out" the brakes by slightly dragging them on rainy days.

Mos6502 07-02-12 10:31 AM

The only such story I've seen detailed was in a letter to Consumer Reports in the 1960s. It was about child who was riding a bike equipped with the Sturmey Archer TCW hub. The TCW was infamous for a design flaw which caused the brake to not work at all in certain situations. The child was riding the bike and couldn't stop on a slight down hill and their hands were too small to get good leverage on the front brake lever, they ran into the side of a house and broke both arms.

Consumer Reports looked into the TCW hubs and later rated them "not acceptable" because of the braking flaw. The TCW operated the coaster brake mechanism through the 3 speed gears meaning that the strength of the braking varied with the differences in mechanical advantage caused by the gearing. If that wasn't bad enough because the brake was actuated through the gear train and a three speed hub has a "neutral" spot between gears, if the hub was improperly adjusted, or the shifter hung up between gears - there was no braking at all.

When I lived in seattle I darn near could have been killed riding a Huffy with steel wheels. It was a raining day and I was going downhill (not even a very steep one) and the brakes didn't work at all. I squeezed the bejeezus out of the levers and after about 20' still no response from them. I ended up having to do the foot on the front wheel trick to get the bike to stop. I've ridden lots of bikes with steel rims in the rain, but never experienced that complete loss of braking before or since.

gcottay 07-02-12 02:16 PM

I share your concern but I worry much more about the cyclist than the mechanics so every so often practice a rapid stop on a high speed downhill. Though the main objective is a prepared rider the practice also builds trust in the braking system and encourages maintenance.

B. Carfree 07-02-12 08:17 PM

Back when I was immortal, like all twenty-somethings, I was fond of descending at speeds in excess of 70 mph. Somewhere along the way it occurred to me that things break. It could have been the numerous frames, cranks, pedals, hubs, chains, etc that failed under me, but who knows what inspired the notion that a tiny brake cable could fail at a critical time. Anyway, I no longer ride at a speed that would cost me my life if one brake cable failed. Since that time, I have only put this to the test once, and I was able to bring the bike to a safe stop with just the rear brake.

As to your question, Phil Wood used to make an interesting disk brake. While many tandem riders, myself included, use a disk brake as a drag brake to save the rim brakes on long descents, there apparently were some folks who used the original Phil disk brake as their primary brake. After some early catastrophic failures (the brake can blow apart), at least one of which was reported to have resulted in a serious permanent disability, Phil beefed up the brake and then stopped making it altogether after the company lost a lawsuit.

I wonder how many crashes that involve a cyclist going over a cliff, such as happened recently on the Ride to Keizer in CA and in Cycle Oregon in 2004, are actually brake failures. I doubt if the coroner is going to give the bike pieces a good look to find the cause of the crash since that is well outside of their training and it is easier to just blame the operator.

mtbikerinpa 07-02-12 08:32 PM

One factor to consider which goes hand in hand with it is traction. Modern brake systems such as V and disc can easily overcome the tractive ability of the tires used on a rainy or off-ideal scenario. A large number of my few roadie crashes were related to front brake exceeding the traction(on a 1974 Schwinn with chrome rims and good pads), and a little bit of wet on crosswalk lines. Not the fault of the machine, but still a braking/friction/traction fail.

As was sort of alluded to earlier by another reply, my dad always said when he taught us how to drive; "Never go faster than you want to hit or dodge around something."

Nitram612 07-02-12 08:43 PM

I was riding my fixed gear conversion to work and the brake cable for the single front brake wasn't fully anchored apparently. I pulled the lever and it popped out. I can skid decently but it caught me off guard and there was no room to stop before slamming into the car in front of me. Luckily there wasn't any oncoming traffic and I reacted quickly enough to jump to the other lane where I had room to stop.

Closed Office 07-02-12 08:55 PM

I have a mechanical aptitude and like taking care of the bikes. It's easy to understand brakes, and easy to see when there might be a problem. One thing that could cause sudden failure of one set of brakes, would be a frayed cable at the end that slips into the brake hand lever.

Sooner or later you will notice a wire broken just before the metal slug, and not long after that, another one. I'm getting more enthusiastic these days and replace the cable at the first broken wire I notice.

LesterOfPuppets 07-02-12 09:02 PM

They don't happen that easily if you have two or more good brakes on your bike. You'd have to be really unlucky to have both brakes fail at the same time. Keep both brakes in good shape, replace cables often and pads when needed.

If you're really concerned, you could always practice emergency foot braking. One method involves jamming your foot on your front tire behind your fork. You need to practice applying pressure without going over the bars. Another is the Ted Shred method, where you reach back with one foot and drag the rear tire with the arch of your foot. Search Youtube for Ted Shred to see that one in action.

vol 07-02-12 10:02 PM

Thanks for all the tips. I'll remember the emergency foot braking method. What I often encounter is a descent just before a traffic light at a busy crossroad. If the brake fails when the light changed to yellow then red, the result can be horrible.

jolly_ross 07-03-12 05:35 AM

Not so much a story about a brake refusing to come on, kind of the opposite:

A while ago now I read of a kid whose mountain bike had canti brakes - with a cross wire. Front brake cable came undone or broke - cross wire dropped and got snagged in gnarly tyre dragging the brake fully on instantly. I think he was OK but the parents were trying legal action because unsurprisingly the kid had lost confidence about ever going on a bike.

This is a hidden function of the little metal brackets that hold reflectors - they can catch a flailing cross wire and stop it falling onto the tyre.

ItsJustMe 07-03-12 01:21 PM

We have two independent sets of brakes, so we're never completely without breaks even if one breaks. Rear only might be problematic to stop with if you're going fast.

As for jolly_ross's story - I once ate pavement bad when I was a kid, I was riding an old Firestone red coaster brake single speed. I was pedaling like crazy, the chain jumped and wedged between the frame and the rear sprocket. This did two things at once, it stopped the pedals moving instantly (remember, I was pedaling like mad at the time) and it locked the brake up. I skidded across a bit of asphalt, then across the gravel shoulder, and finally into the ditch. Then had to drag my disabled bike another 3 miles home.

vol 07-03-12 09:54 PM


Originally Posted by ItsJustMe (Post 14436397)
we're never completely without breaks even if one breaks.


nelson249 07-04-12 06:34 AM

A trend round here among young boys is to remove the brakes from their BMX bikes.

Chris516 07-04-12 08:13 AM


Originally Posted by vol (Post 14430572)
Every time I'm riding down a slope, I worry what if the brakes suddenly stopped working. I would think this kind of accidents happen easily, but have never seen a report about it. Has anyone here heard or even experienced such scaring accidents?

Your worrying about it, is the problem. I am not trying to be insulting. But if you constantly worry about your brakes failing, when you are going down hill, you might as well not ride on any hills. Going up or down.

RaleighSport 07-04-12 08:54 AM


Originally Posted by vol (Post 14430572)
Every time I'm riding down a slope, I worry what if the brakes suddenly stopped working. I would think this kind of accidents happen easily, but have never seen a report about it. Has anyone here heard or even experienced such scaring accidents?

No brake failure accidents yet.. I usually only worry like that on a STEEP descent on a coaster brake.

Flying Merkel 07-04-12 09:24 AM

I rode steel rimmed 10 speeds back in the day. Rainy day meant no brakes. No matter, 10 speeds weren't supposed to have brakes when it rained. We planned ahead & used our feet.

I was coming down a steep fast hill on my hand-me-down Royce-Union outfitted with the finest stamped steel brakes. It was the end of a long ride. One of the rear brake pads loosened up enough to drop below the rim and hit the spokes. Other than chewing the pad to hell, there was no consequence. Found out later that the pads would unscrew themselves. The Royce-Onion needed constant fiddling to keep operational, typical of most low-end bikes.

Lord Chaos 07-04-12 10:20 AM

I ride a lot of steep hills--up to 20% gradient--so brake failure is always in the back of my mind. I make sure the cables are good, and then pay attention to how the brakes feel. Impending cable failures usually announce themselves; you'll feel something "odd" in the lever.

That said... I've never had a brake failure. I still ride conservatively, not so much due to brake worries as just not caring about speed.

One thing to think about with rim brakes is that long descents will heat the wheel, which causes the tire pressure to increase. A friend of mine had this happen on Trail Ridge Road. Fortunately when the tire blew out (not a sidewall failure; the tire's bead lifted out of the rim, so the tube blew out) the wheel didn't lock up. It was a long way home, though, and in those hair-shirt days nobody carried spare tubes. I had a spare tubular (I was riding a Colnago at the time) that fit his rim well enough to get him down the mountain... with more decorous braking.

I-Like-To-Bike 07-04-12 10:25 AM


Originally Posted by Chris516 (Post 14438902)
Your worrying about it, is the problem. I am not trying to be insulting. But if you constantly worry about your brakes failing, when you are going down hill, you might as well not ride on any hills. Going up or down.

I don't often agree with Chris516 on cycling technique, but he is right on the money with this advice.

rekmeyata 07-04-12 10:57 PM

I agree, your worrying will be the death of you. If you keep you bike in tip top shape there is no reason for a brake to fail, even if by some slim chance one does you still have another brake, and if by some stroke of lightening the other brake fails...well, it was just your time to go.

fordmanvt 07-05-12 07:27 PM

You should test out your brakes before descending a steep hill. In motor sports it is very common for drivers and riders to touch their brakes part way down a straight so they can have confidence that their brakes are going to work at the end of the straight, when they need to brake.

Dan The Man 07-05-12 07:42 PM

Once I changes both tires and forgot to hook up the brakes again. Went out the door, down a hill and wiped out.

aixaix 07-06-12 10:16 AM

Total brake failure is really, really rare. Cable brakes have few moving parts and all but the worst brakes out there can deal with greater stresses than they will ever encounter in even severe use. As others have pointed out, failures tend to be predictable, with fraying cables being the most common cause. Loose hardware can cause pivots to fall apart & shoes to fall off.
If anything feels different to you when braking, such as a crunchy or gritty feeling when squeezing the levers or odd noises (such as clicking) from the brakes, have a look. Inspection, as well as lubricating cables & pivots will effectively prevent brake failure for mechanical reasons.

SteamingAlong 07-06-12 12:39 PM

I haven't heard of a brake failure due to defect, however there is one issue I haven't seen mentioned yet.

On a long descent with a bike equiped with rim brakes, it is possible to overheat the rim and cause a high speed tire blowout, which at high speed this could be deadly, especially if it's the front wheel.

It's one of the topics covered in the book "Bicycle Science".

Keith99 07-06-12 01:04 PM

When I was a kid most of us had bikes with 2 or 3 speed hubs where a slight backpedal changed gears and a harder backpedal braked. Most of those bikes had no hand brake for the front.

Drop or break a chain and no brakes.

I never recall that happening, but it is something to consider.

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