Wednesday, July 18

Brake it Down

A couple weeks ago the brakes on my car went out. While I was driving. While I was driving with my two sleeping children in the backseat. Needless to say, it was one of those terrifying moments that, thankfully, happen so fast you don’t even have time to process how truly terrifying it is as it’s happening.

Spoiler alert: we’re all safe and nothing awful happened (unless you count the huge dent in our checking account).

The kids and I were on our way to my parents’ house. To turn into their neighborhood from a four-lane busy street, you have to be paying attention or you just might miss the street. My method is to watch for the street sign to know exactly when the turn is coming up. Apparently, though, the street sign was down for some reason. While I had slowed down considerably, when I realized the street was upon us, I wasn’t quite going slow enough to safely make the turn.

So I cruised on to the next turn, which goes into a parking lot and would let me wind my way over to the neighborhood street. No big deal.

But in an instant, my car (and me) started freaking out. Warning beeps screeched, dashboard lights flashed, emergency signals that I couldn’t decipher suddenly appeared on my screen. I tried to brake and quickly realized that was not happening. I needed to get off the road. Everything happened so fast, I’m not sure exactly how things went down. One of the lights that came on was my emergency brake light. I thought, “Did I manage to turn on my emergency brakes?” So I pressed the emergency brake pedal to try to turn it off, which turned out to be a good thing because it slowed me down. I think I put on my flashers, aware that things were not good and I should try to warn other drivers.

As I was attempting the right turn into the parking lot, another car was exiting the lot, and I briefly considered honking because I didn’t think I was going slow enough to control my turn. But somehow I controlled it. Maybe it was the fact that I was on an incline that slowed me down. Maybe it was because I had already been decreasing my speed for awhile. Maybe it was because I pressed the emergency brake pedal. But I cruised into the lot and pulled over to the side. I could tell my brakes were not doing what they were supposed to. Their stopping action was not related at all to my pressing on the pedal, it seemed.

My heart was pounding. I may have cursed a time or two. But we were stopped, and the kids were still asleep in spite of the beeping, screeching warning sounds. I turned the car off and tried turning it back on. The classic reset move. But that didn’t help anything. The flashing and beeping started the instant the car came back on. I considered whether I could make it to my parents’ house, since I was only a couple blocks away. No, bad idea. I did, however, decide to try to move the car about 20 feet forward to be in an actual parking spot rather than on the side of the parking lot entrance. Since I never went more than 5 mph, I was able to pull off this maneuver.

I called my parents and my dad answered the phone. I explained what happened and asked him to come pick up the kids. It was about 100 degrees out and I didn’t like the thought of them sleeping in the car in the heat. Dad came right away and we all loaded into the car, deciding that I could call AAA from their house and come back to the car when the tow truck came.

I called, the car got towed to my side of town, and we ended up paying close to $2200 for parts and labor. It was the skid control ECU that had malfunctioned and needed to be replaced. (While I’m sure all of you know exactly what that is, let me explain for my own memory. It’s basically one of several sub-computers in the car that controls a bunch of functions, including the brakes. And since the brakes in the Prius are tied to the whole hybrid functionality, it’s a complicated expensive thing to fix. And nobody but the dealer will fix it, so they can pretty much charge whatever they want for labor.)

In the end, everything turned out fine. And the brakes going out happened at about the best possible time. The day before, we were on our way back from my cousin’s wedding in Iowa and spent a lot of time on small roads in rural Iowa. With temps in the upper nineties and no shade to speak of, waiting for a tow truck in the middle of nowhere would have been a lot worse. Even just ten minutes earlier would have been worse, since we were driving on a 65-mph-highway. And having that street sign down was even a good thing, since it had me slowing down, but forcing me to miss the turn meant I ended up going up an incline. I’m not one to believe in miracles or guardian angels or any of that, but incidents like this make me feel pretty thankful to the universe for looking out for me and my babies.

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