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Sudden Brake Line Failure


A fan belt squeaks, a transmission slips and a water pump leaks letting you know that they need attention. But there is one component of a system that is very crucial to your safety that is reluctant to draw attention to itself until it fails catastrophically. This is the brake line.

To get you up to speed on the infrastructure (very basically), your brake system is part mechanical--brake pads, rotors and the like--and part hydraulic--master cylinder, brake calipers and wheel cylinders in the case of shoed brakes. The brake fluid that is used to apply hydraulic pressure to the brakes at each wheel is contained within the brake line.

So when you press on the brake pedal pressure builds up in the master cylinder and that pressure is transmitted to the wheels through the brake lines. It is sort of like pressing the trigger on water gun except a brake system is a closed loop system. Leaks are not a good thing.

The brake lines are made of steel and are located under the vehicle which makes them susceptible to corrosion induced by road salt and other contaminants prevalent on the highway. Whether because of the extended length of time vehicles are staying on the road or the chemicals applied to assist winter driving, brake line failures are happening more often.

In April of 2010 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) opened a Preliminary Evaluation to investigate these failures in C&K Series trucks produced from the 1999 to 2003 model years. In a letter to General Motors, NHTSA said there had been 197 reports of brake line failure resulting in three crashes.

The trouble with sudden brake line failure is that there is rarely a warning. If the line is “weeping” an alert operator may become suspicious when brake fluid has to be added or the brake warning light on the dash lights up. At this point, you should have all the lines inspected and check for leaks at each wheel and around the perimeter of the vehicle. Brake fluid is clear and oily but will appear black as it discolors the pavement.

The lines are often hidden from the view of even a vigilant technician. There is no way to test the integrity of brake lines and they are too expensive to replace on a preventative maintenance basis. The same reason that makes them hard to evaluate--their inaccessibility--makes them labor intensive to replace. In some applications, brake line replacement jobs can cost more than $1,000.

If a brake line has ruptured pumping the brakes may not help. The National Safety Council's detailed instructions for handling your car when its brakes fail are available at link listed below. The first thing to remember is to try not to panic.

[NHTSA & National Safety Council

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Comments (3)
  1. THE BRAKE LINES WERE EVIDENTLY MADE OF SUB PAR MATERIALS ,THEY SUDDENLY BURST AND CAUSE INSTANT BRAKE FAILURE.MINE WERE ALL RUSTY.THIS COULD HAVE BEEN EASILY PREVENTED BY GM SIMPLY COATING THE LINES BEFORE INSTALLING.VERY LITTLE EXPENSE ON THEIR PART. ,LOTS OF EXPENSE FOR ME TO HAVE REPAIRED.GM'S POOR CHOICE OF MATERIALS WILL EVENTUALLY KILL SOMEONE.
     
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  2. I agree, owners in the 21 state rust belt have to be especially aware of this danger and try to keep an eye on brake lines, if possible.
     
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  3. It happened this morning...complete and total brake failure as my wife was driving our '98 Venture. Had it towed in and learned that the rear brakes lines rusted to the point of catastrophic failure...no warning whatsoever. No crash, thank goodness, due in part to the weather...cold and icy streets caused her to drive slow. Not her normal 'I'm late...'. $500.00 later, the car is back on the street. As to other vehicles having the same problem...count on it and count on fatalities. We're keeping our cars much longer due to the crap economy, so the end results will be 'no warning brake failure'. It's just that simple...
     
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