All vehicles have two brake systems. The “service brake” is the primary brake system, the one that activates when you step on the brake pedal. A booster amplifies the force, sending hydraulic pressure to the brakes at each wheel. The secondary brake system is independent of the hydraulic brake system, engaged by levers or cables. This functions as a backup in case the service brake fails, which is why it’s typically referred to as an “emergency brake.”
When the question of when you should use your emergency brake arises, most people would say, “In an emergency!” After all, it’s right there in the name. Of course, depending on who you’re talking to and which automaker you ask, you might get different names for this system, such as emergency brake, parking brake, e-brake or handbrake — they all refer to the secondary brake system. Most people assume that means you hardly ever use it.
Actually, that’s a myth. The correct answer to the question “When should you use your emergency brake?” is “Probably more than you are right now.”
If you’re driving a manual-transmission car, particularly if you’re starting on a hill, you can use the emergency brake to hold the vehicle. That way, you don’t have to worry about rolling down the hill while you switch from the brake pedal to the accelerator. It also helps you reduce wear on the clutch.
You can use your emergency brake to park your car on level ground, too. When you park your car, put it in neutral, set the emergency brake, then release the brake pedal. With the emergency brake holding the vehicle, put the transmission in gear or “Park,” and shut off the car. It reduces pressure on the clutch, transmission, parking pawl and CV joints — and reduced pressure means reduced wear.
Using the emergency brake regularly when you park, even if you drive an automatic, also has a secondary benefit: It keeps the cables and levers moving. Most often found on automatic-transmission vehicles, unused cables and levers tend to oxidize and seize in place. If a real emergency comes up, you’ll be glad you kept those cables in motion.
In an Emergency
Given that the primary brake system on your car is a complex electro-hydro-mechanical system, there are a number of ways it can fail, some of them catastrophic. Of course, this is what the emergency brake was named for and the main reason for its implementation in every single vehicle on the road.
In case of service brake failure, such as loss of brake fluid, you may have less than seconds to react, but resist the urge to yank the handbrake or stomp on the parking brake pedal as hard as you can, which could lock up the brakes. Instead, slowly engage the emergency brake to bring your car to a safe stop. True, the parking brake was designed to hold, not stop, your car, but it can help you regain control.
Whether you’re driving or parking, get in the habit of using your emergency brake to keep the parts moving. In case you need to use your emergency brake in a real emergency, it will be ready to act, and could save your life.
For more information on using your emergency brake, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.