Unless You Want to Risk Killing People, USE the Parking Brake… Every Time!

Every few months there is a recall here in the USA because the ‘P’ (Park) setting in automatic gearboxes has been failing.  Those affected vehicles that haven’t also had the parking brake properly set will then inevitably roll away down any hills or even the gentlest of slopes they happen to be on, and then they build up momentum. This frequently results only in damage but all too often this can maim or kill pedestrians…. especially children playing on driveways or in nearby yards!

Here’s just one example: Another half-a-million vehicles recalled in the USA

The commonest parking brakes are foot operated. (Copyright image, 2018.)

Vehicles can even cause harm if left on totally flat ground at the roadside, without a parking brake in use, if they are hit by another vehicle. Think of billiard balls. Your car’s “P” setting will be smashed by any hard impact and your car will then careen away until it runs out of momentum or it hits something.

The humble parking brake is one of the most undervalued and most abused safety controls found in modern vehicles, and this failure to understand and the resultant failure to actually use parking brakes leads to many pointless and preventable crashes, some of which cost lives.

A large part of this problem dates back decades to when car brakes were all of the “drum” design, which because of their hollow shape could hold moisture inside them. And during very cold weather that moisture could freeze and lock the parking brake on so that the car would not move.

Because of a now very-outdated belief that parking brakes will easily freeze on, we have had literally thousands of trainees on our ADoNA corporate defensive and advanced driving courses all over North America who still believe what is now a myth.  In the answer to a quiz question, they say that they won’t use parking brakes because of this perceived problem, but it does get particularly funny when we are told it by drivers in places like Florida and southern California, where the weather severely freezes how often?

Anyway, since the introduction of disc brakes, well back in the last century, those days of frozen brakes have thankfully disappeared into history. So there’s the first point: To prevent unnecessary roll-aways which can all-too-easily cause injuries or death, always set your parking brake every single time you get out of the driver’s seat. Anyone who knows this information but doesn’t use the parking brake is frankly just being either lazy or reckless — a description which may sound offensive but is rather undeniable.

If you would actually prefer anecdotal evidence rather than the above statistically accurate facts, I can add that we lived in Buffalo, NY, for 12 years — the so-called “snow capital of the USA” — and our family unfailingly used their respective parking brakes every single time they left their vehicles, yet despite frequent nighttime temperatures as low as negative 16 Fahrenheit (-27C), we never once had a brake freeze on.

A hand-operated parking brake… a handbrake! (Copyright image, 2018.)

Another question this issue raises relates to the automatic parking brakes that are now fitted as standard on some more-expensive vehicles, namely: “Would car makers fit automatic parking brakes if those brakes would freeze on in severe winter temperatures?” No.

And at the other extreme, would automakers still fit parking brakes at all if merely leaving the vehicle in “P” would be adequate? Once again, the answer is a resounding “No!”

In this context, be aware that in the article linked at the top of this post, it specifically states that ‘Ford is advising [all] owners to use the parking brake.’ I would, however, add that this advice from an American automaker is many decades too late in arriving! Indeed, this is the first time we have ever seen a Detroit automaker mention this important fact but given that we have been writing about it online for more than 15 years, maybe we can take some credit for pushing the point?

Incidentally, as a matter of personal choice, I vastly prefer a well-maintained handbrake over all the other options, simply because anyone who has been taught properly how to use a handbrake can get the smoothest and most precisely-controlled hill starts — and all other starts — that are possible, while maintaining maximum safety, and it also means that a simple control can be used instead of a technical or expensive one that is more likely to go wrong.

Another aspect to this is that in some if not all other developed countries, it is actually the law that a vehicle may never be left on a road or other public place without the parking brake being correctly set. Perhaps this additional aspect serves to underline the importance of the matter because laws such as this are never passed unless there have been enough casualties historically to warrant the political effort.

In closing, though, please don’t expect sympathy if your parking brake will no longer function (i.e. the pedal feels locked in place). The only reason this happens is through lack of use. A parking brake is typically only operated by a steel cable and if the parking brake is never used it can rust and lock itself in place. This is easily remedied by getting the shop to fit a new cable for you, then you too will be able to help protect your neighborhood kids, and other people, by using it every time you get out of the car. It genuinely is such an easy and important thing to do.

Finally, in the interests once more of everyone’s safety, including you and your own loved ones, please do keep checking for any recalls on all the various vehicles you own. Additional vehicles and new problems are being added to the list all the time. If in doubt, simply contact the nearest dealer for the relevant automaker/s, and ask if there is anything outstanding in respect of your car.


COPYRIGHT:   This article, by the same writer, was first published on another website and is subject to copyright.

4 Replies to “Unless You Want to Risk Killing People, USE the Parking Brake… Every Time!”

  1. Wasn’t this actor crushed and killed by his own vehicle because he failed to set his parking brake? https://www.empireonline.com/movies/news/anton-yelchin-dies-aged-27/

    I was almost hurt when a tour vehicle driver’s foot slipped off the brake and the vehicle lurched forward. I find it incomprehensible that a driver would not set the parking brake when the vehicle is stopped and especially when it is parked. “Parking” brake!!! That is why they call it the “parking” brake!!

    1. Yes, indeed, that is how the young Chekov, from Star Trek, met a terrible and utterly pointless end to his life, Henry.

      Thanks for posting a comment. Your thoughts will always be welcome.

  2. Many newer cars automatically apply the parking brake. With no manual operation, it is truly a parking brake and cannot possibly be incorrectly termed as an ’emergency brake’.
    Some of the newer EV’s and hybrids use regenerative braking, to recover energy from the cars motion when the driver lifts their foot from the accelerator. This reduces the amount the brakes are used. If an EV is driven carefully there is almost no use of the brake pedal needed, except to hold the vehicle at a light, stop sign or on an incline.

    The reduction in brake use can lead to corrosion of the brake pad base to the actuating assembly (calipers). Even though the brake pads do not wear as fast. In the northeast and other ares of the US where road salt and spray is encountered, a yearly service is still essential to make sure that the brake pads are free, and able to operate correctly.

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