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Magic Brakes

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Quite often, during a chase scene, the prey will find himself the victim of a brake failure. There are many reasons this could happen: his brake lines have been cut by the villain, rough terrain has damaged the car, or My Car Hates Me and has decided that now would be a good time for them to randomly fail.

Losing your brakes is indeed a dangerous thing to have happen, but TV likes to up the danger by assuming that brakes are magical devices which hold in check the powerful forces which a car uses to kill its driver.

Specifically, without brakes, a fictional driver loses all ability to slow the car down. They don't think to downshift, de-clutch, take the car out of gear, or even take their foot off the accelerator pedal. Applying the parking brake doesn't help, even though is a completely separate system from the normal hydraulic brakes. Throwing the car into reverse is ineffective as transmissions can't engage the reverse gear while moving forwards.

Worse than that, a car without brakes will not simply fail to stop. It will accelerate out of control, even on flat ground or up a hill. The engine may rev up. The driver will also be forced to swerve back and forth a lot. Sometimes the implication is that the driver is panicking and not thinking straight.

With Magic Brakes being the only thing keeping the car from quickly accelerating to top speed, it's odd that no one ever notices the brake failure until they've reached highway speed — despite any maneuvering and braking required just to get the car out of its parking spot. This is sometimes (but not often) Hand Waved by having the brake line slashed, but not fully cut, so the brake fluid is slowly leaking out.

Fortunately, the magic does not kick in until the driver discovers that he has no brakes. The car will behave perfectly normally before that point, but as soon as he notices that he can't stop, the out-of-control acceleration will begin.

Of course, if there is a hairpin turn anywhere within a hundred miles, the driver will be on it at the moment the brakes decide to let go.

A note on heavy trucks and trains: air brakes on modern vehicles work opposite the way car brakes do. The brakes are set to hold themselves shut, but air pressure in the system is what opens them and lets the wheels turn. If an air line is cut, there will be no pressure to open the brakes and the vehicle won't move. Of course, this can be dangerous in its own way; if the air lines are cut while in motion, or something else goes wrong, the brakes will snap shut and cause a lockup, skidding, and perhaps a jackknifed trailer. You may see this on a highway in the form of two sets of closely-spaced rubber streaks.

Often overlaps with Brake Angrily, and if the driver's a woman, can serve as an easy way to put the Damsel in Distress.


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  • Subverted in one Burger King commercial. A group of moms incensed by the restaurant's new home-style melt hire a saboteur to cut the King's brake lines. This only causes him to accidentally ram their parked cars as he backs out of his parking spot.

    Anime & Manga 
  • In Sailor Moon episode 111, Eudial's car falls off a cliff after she discovers that her rival Mimete destroyed its brake pedal. Not only did she have enough time and distance to simply steer away, but it also raises the question how she managed to get there to begin with — not only without brakes, but without the entire brake pad and the bottom portion of the car. She also didn't notice the snails Mimete left as an extra prank.
  • In the You're Under Arrest! episode "A Midsummer Night's Curse", the brakes in Miyuki's Honda go out just as it reaches a crosswalk with two children crossing. The emergency brake however, did work, preventing any accidents from occurring.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In the first Cannonball Run film, a minor Cannonballer claims to a police officer trying to pull him over that his brakes are broken and he can't stop. After the police car pulls away to get backup, the Cannonballer discovers his brakes really are broken, leading to his truck jumping off the conveniently placed car hauler and over the single empty flatbed of the train that has everything else stopped.
  • Occurs in the Tank Girl film when TG is stealing the Water & Power truck.
    Jet Girl: There's a big cliff coming up on you. Now hit the brakes. Hit the brakes!
    Tank Girl: Brakes aren't working, girl! Plan B!
    Jet Girl: Get outta there! Quick! Jump!
  • Riding With Death. Atypically, the brake failure is treated as only a moderate danger in and of itself — the danger is provided by the high explosives in the trailer, the steep downhill grade causing it to speed up, and the hairpin turn just down the road (although he's driving a tractor-trailer with air brakes, so cutting a line should've prevented him from going anywhere in the first place).
  • In Black Dog, attention to detail on how trucks work is the film's main virtue. When a bad guy on a bike jumps onto the deckplate in-motion, and pulls off the connectors to the trailer, the protection valve on the dash of the tractor pops immediately, and the hero must get them re-connected before the air tank runs low and the brakes set.
  • In Silver Streak, the conductor's plan to stop (most of) the sabotaged train and minimize the damage from the crash at the end of the film is simple: uncouple the cars, all the air lines break, and the emergency brakes set, leaving only the locomotive running out-of-control. This is actually completely accurate.
    • The same situation was played out in the film Runaway Train.
    • Also in Final Run (1999), but this time helped with a Skycrane helicopter to to make sure the cars really stop.
  • This is how the titular character dies in Drowning Mona.
  • In The Blues Brothers, where the heroes glue the Good Ol' Boys' truck's accelerator pedal down.
  • Fantômas: Happens in the car given to Fandor and Hélène by Lady Beltham. Partly Justified, because Fandor says that the brakes and the gear box are sabotaged and because the car is in a mountain road.

  • Used in Tom Clancy's Without Remorse, when a truck going downhill loses all brakes, resulting in the driver downshifting. It did slow the truck down, but not enough...
  • Borderline example in A Scanner Darkly where it's the accelerator pedal that's broken, and won't come up from the depressed position, causing the car to keep accelerating until the protagonist rips the key out of the ignition.
  • Crops up in one of the books that were adapted into All Creatures Great And Small of all places. Subverted in that Jim had been complaining to Siegfried about the car (which belonged to the practice) being in increasingly urgent need of having the brakes serviced for some weeks beforehandnote , but the part where they finally give up the ghost right at the top of a very steep hill is played straight. Of course, being in Yorkshire it would have been more of an improbable coincidence if they'd quit on him anywhere but on a hill.

    Live-Action TV 
  • MacGyver (1985):
    • "Hellfire" does a good job of setting up the sequence — there's a steep gradient, a reason for the brakes to fail just at that moment, and an actual danger from the load of unstable explosives on the back of the truck — but still falls inside the trope because the people in the truck, one of whom is the famously ingenious MacGyver, can't think of anything that might slow the truck down.
    • "The Enemy Within" has a car with a punctured brake fluid cable accelerate out of control down a gentle slope for several miles while MacGyver climbs out onto the front of the car and does emergency repairs. (The driver does actually think to try the handbrake, but it's not working either.)
  • Too many Soap Opera examples to list, on both sides of the Equator. Ugly Betty brought from Venezuela all the brake-cutting goodness of the original.
    • India is also quite fond of this trope.
  • Subverted in Lois & Clark, when Jimmy Olsen finds himself unable to brake he resorts to screaming for help. Superman just sits down next to him and says "Did you try this?" before turning off the ignition and handing Jimmy the key as the car comes to a complete stop.
  • Justified in Smallville. When an actress's car goes out of control, it's revealed that not only did someone cut her brake line, they also tampered with her accelerator, explaining why she kept speeding up.
  • A brake fluid line was accidentally cut in a Mission: Impossible episode, in a remote-controlled vehicle to boot. However, they did manage to get the vehicle back in control through downshifting.
  • In one episode of The Bionic Woman, Jaime finds herself in a car with the brakes cut, rolling downhill, and the gearshift rigged so she couldn't put it in park. She has to open the car door and stomp down hard with her bionic legs to stop the car.
  • In Gotham, Penguin decides to murder Edward Nigma's girlfriend Isabella and has her brake lines completely severed and gushing braking fluid, a sabotage that goes unnoticed until she needs to brake avoid running into a about 15 seconds. She is on a slight downward incline, but no option other than repeatedly pressing the brake while continuing straight towards it seems to occur to her.

  • "30,000 Pounds of Bananas" by Harry Chapin tells of a trucker's demise:
    His foot mashed the brakes to slow him down, but the pedal floored easy without a sound.
    He said "Christ!" It was funny how he had named the only man who could save him now.
    • The song is based on a true story - in this case the driver did his best, including shouting to bystanders that he couldn't stop the runaway truck. He was the only fatality in the crash.
  • C. W. McCall's "Wolf Creek Pass" describes this happening to a flatbed carrying a full load of chickens on the downhill side of the eponymous pass. The description makes it sound as if the lines blew out at that moment, explaining how they didn't notice before. Well, that, and Earl apparently Drives Like Crazy.
    Well Earl rared back, cocked his leg, stepped down as hard as he could on the brake, the pedal went clear to the floor, and stayed right there on the floor, he says it sorta like stepping on a plum.

    Web Video 
  • On 7-Second Riddles, A busdriver's brakes stop working and he ends up driving the bus and all its riders off of a cliff, with enough momentum to go uphill.

    Western Animation 
  • American Dad!:
    • Subverted/Parodied in "Escape From Pearl Bailey" where a girl Steve is taking revenge on has her brakes go out at the top of a steep hill, only to realize that she was just stepping on the clutch. The revenge Steve has for her is instead much more humiliating and disgusting.
    • Played straight in "Great Space Roaster" when Roger cuts the brakes after getting insulted on his 1600th birthday; the car goes in full throttle as soon as Stan mentions the brakes.
  • The Season 3 Amphibia episode "Thai Feud" has Anne try to stop a runaway food truck by hitting the brakes, it isn't until after she notices this that she realizes that the truck was parked because of the brakes, which Ned completely forgot to get fixed. When Ned gets his truck back at the end of the episode, he comments again on needing to get them fixed as he drives off.
  • Parodied in The Simpsons, where Marge's car's dashboard actually has a "Brakes Cut" light in "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Marge".
    • Even stranger, the brakes weren't actually cut: Homer just ended up draining all the brake fluid when he was trying to change the oil and was too embarrassed to mention it.
    • The episode "Marge vs. the Monorail" also has brakes that visibly break once the monorail starts moving. Pulling the brake lever even has an audio message saying the lever is not in service play.