Dear Tom and Ray:
I’m looking to resolve a brake discussion between me and my dad. Do you think you two can help? My car is a 1996 Honda Accord, four-cylinder, ﬁve-speed. I understand that the emergency brake is designed for emergency situations, such as when the usual braking power is not enough to stop the vehicle or the braking has failed completely ... hence the name “emergency brake.” However, can the emergency brake be used slowly to help stop the vehicle daily? Does pulling back on the brake handle one click at a time to help slow the vehicle harm the braking system or present any danger? Many thanks.—Todd
RAY: We’re guessing that you’re the “brake puller” in this family,Todd. You’re probably doing this because you think it’s an easy way to prolong the life of your regular brakes. But you may be surprised to know that the hand brake is actually designed for parking, not stopping. Hence its real name, the “parking brake.”
TOM: It used to be called the “emergency brake,” but after several car companies got sued because it didn’t stop the car in an emergency, car company lawyers forced them to change the name to the more accurate “parking brake.”
RAY: It’s really not designed to stop a moving car; it’s designed to keep the car stopped once it’s parked, so that it doesn’t roll away if the transmission or clutch fails.
TOM: There are two primary types of parking brakes. One type uses the same brake pads that your brake pedal actuates, although the parking brake uses only the brakes on the two rear wheels, rather than all four wheels.
RAY: So, in that situation, you’re not saving your brakes at all—you’re just applying them differently. In fact, if you haveapull-up parking brake like your Accord has, you’ll stretch and, eventually, break the parking brake cables if you use them that way every day.
TOM: The other type of parking brake employs its own, separately housed drum brakes on the rear wheels. Using those brakes will provide some additional braking. However, these parking brakes are not very robust, can be hard to access, and can be very expensive to replace. So you may save $3 worth of brake pads in a year and cost yourself a $300 parking-brake job.
RAY: Either way, it’s not a good idea to use the parking brake for day-today stopping. Now, in an emergency, if your regular brakes aren’t working, you absolutely should try the parking brake. I mean, why not? You’ve got nothing to lose. And if it’s in good working condition, it might actually help you avoid a collision.
TOM: But it’s not designed to stop a car that’s traveling at speed. So you can’t count on it for that. And using it for that purpose every day will mean it’s less able to do its real job: keeping your car from rolling into some mobster’s Cadillac when you forget to park it in gear. And if you think brake pads are expensive, try new knees.