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Dealing with a bad brake at church

In September, I wrote about electric emergency brakes. At the end of the column, I told everyone to read their owner’s manual to have a better understanding of their brakes if they encounter a problem.

The subject recently hit close to home.

My wife drives a 2011 BMW X5 diesel that just so happens to have an electric emergency brake. I noticed that her electric emergency brake switch was getting loose, but I kept telling myself that I would order the part and install it when I got a chance.

While driving to church, I looked down and saw that the e-brake switch had broken off. I asked my wife what happened, but knowing the switch was already loose, I didn’t press the subject. I also realized that I could still line up the broken tab and possibly position it well enough to make it useful.

As we arrived at church, I found myself in a predicament: Should I engage the e-brake or not? In the back of my mind, I somehow thought it would be kind of a cool experiment. So I did it. At that exact moment, my wife turned to me and exclaimed, “Why did you do that? You know it’s broken.” I, being Matt the Mechanic, of course replied, “It will be fine.”

As we emerged from church, collected our children and headed to the car, I couldn’t help but feel a little excited – I was going to prove to my wife that I could just line up the tab and release the brake instantly.

Yet we all know that it didn’t go that way.

The moment the e-brake did not release, my wife sternly reminded me that our oldest son had swim practice in 20 minutes and that I better get this sorted out right away.


I quickly sprang into action. I knew where the manual emergency brake actuator was (left side of the trunk area), but I had never attempted the manual release procedure. While I accessed it, I politely asked my wife to please read me the instructions on how to release the cable.

This is where things got interesting.

As the rear hatch came up, I discovered a bike, a scooter, a helmet, two strollers, another bike and miscellaneous sand toys. It was as if we were in a BMW commercial on what you could put into the back of a midsized SUV.

As I began to unpack the payload, my wife quickly read the instructions and reminded me that we now had 15 minutes to get to swim class.

Once I cleared the rear of the vehicle, I accessed the left rear panel. I could see the release cable. My wife told me to remove the plastic tool from the car tool kit; it’s red and looks like an L. I then inserted the tool over the cable and pulled hard.

At that moment, I found myself crouched in the trunk, sweating in my Sunday best with what looked like a yard sale in the back of that car. People were beginning to stare.

I was sure relief was in sight – I was just about to release the e-brake and save the day, but, no, it did not release. I pulled harder and harder. I then got an update from my wife that I was not pulling hard enough and we now had 10 minutes to make the swim class. On top of that, our oldest was saying that he did not want to go to his swim lesson and our youngest was screaming at the top of his lungs.


I tried a few more times but realized that it was not going to work. At that moment, I sat calmly and asked myself, “What would I do at the shop?” I exited the trunk and sat in the front seat. I retrieved the broken tab and examined it. I noticed that it was a dual cantilever system.

I figured out what would release the switch and asked my wife for something sharp from her purse. She gave me that look that indicated, “Why in the heck did you set the e-brake in the first place?” She then gave me a pen. I removed the clip from the end, inserted it into the correct position of the switch and heard the glorious sound of the e-brake releasing.

I have to admit that I was kind of laughing inside during the entire episode, because I had just written about being prepared for such an incident. It is just another reminder that no matter what you do, life is always going to throw you a curveball. In the end, our oldest made his swim lesson and we enjoyed the rest of our Sunday.

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