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

Here we go once more — another half-a-million vehicles recalled in the USA because yet again the ‘P’ (Park) setting in automatic gearboxes is failing, and those vehicles that haven’t had the parking brake properly set inevitably will then roll away down any hills or even the gentlest of slopes they happen to be on, and then they build up momentum.  This frequently just results in damage but all too often it maims or kills people…. especially children playing on driveways or in nearby yards!

Photograph of a parking brake foot pedal.
The traditional pedal-style of parking brake (and no it is NOT an “emergency brake”) found on cars in the USA. See article for more information. (Copyright image, 2018.)

Vehicles can even cause harm if left on totally flat ground 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 careen away until it runs out of momentum or it hits something or somebody.

The humble parking brake is one of the most misunderstood 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Because of the now very-outdated belief that parking brakes will easily freeze on, we have had literally thousands of trainees on our ADoNA corporate defensive and advanced driving courses all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 and adamantly tell us that they won’t use parking brakes because of this problem, but it does get particularly funny when we are told it, to this day, 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 effectively 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 recklessly stupid — a description which may sound offensive but is true.

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 nighttime temperatures as low as negative 16 Fahrenheit (-27C), we never once had a brake freeze on.

Photograph of a handbrake.
A handbrake serves exactly the same purpose as a foot-operated parking brake but in one particular way is a far superior control because it facilitates total control during hill starts up steep inclines. (Copyright image, 2018.)

A question that this issue raises relates to automatic parking brakes that are 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 is genuinely 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.


As always, please be aware that this website is registered with the United States Copyright Office and that punitive legal action for damages may be taken against anyone who breaches our copyright. This, however, does not stop you from posting links to any of our pages, and you are welcome to do so.

Author: EddieWren

Eddie Wren is the CEO and Chief Instructor at Advanced Drivers of North America. His driver safety background is given at: http://www.advanceddrivers.com/ceochief-instructors-resumecvbio/

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

  1. Spot on.
    It beggars belief that a nation that holds itself up to be #1 in all things can get things so badly wrong or misunderstand something so intrinsically simple to use.
    And that’s before we start on the other road safety stats……….

    1. One way that I phrase it, Roger, is that for every single poor soul killed in the hideous 9/11 massacre, over 200 Americans have subsequently been slaughtered on the roads of the USA. This country went to war as a result of 9/11 so why has it not “gone to war” on the perpetual massacre that is road deaths? The USA has lost over a million people in this manner in just the last 25 years, and it is both heartbreakingly and obscenely excessive.

  2. Hi Eddie
    I heard the mythology of frozen brakes while I lived in the New England and in Minnesota. In fact some of my co-workers commented that I would get stuck when the parking brake freezes on. Of course, I never had such an experience. However, I did come across several vehicles where the operating cable broke while a vehicle was parked. This was due to corrosion. The whole point of the parking brake is to eliminate a ‘single point of failure’ from allowing an unattended vehicle to be set into motion. San Francisco has well publicized rules of parking that adds tire positioning when parking on a hill or sloped driveway. From the California drivers manual: The setting of the parking brake is mentioned, but in my opinion not emphasized enough. https://www.dmv.ca.gov/portal/dmv/detail/pubs/hdbk/parking

    1. Perfectly correct, John. The aggravating thing is, of course, that the corrosion of parking brake cables happens primarily *because* they are not used and just lie there rusting merrily away — and then the rust locks them so that they won’t function at all! Several states do give guidelines about angling the front wheels appropriately for facing up or down a hill when parking but I’m pleasantly surprised that your State even mentions the parking brake. (Do they actually call it that, or do they give it the misleading name of “emergency brake”?).

      I hope you are still contemplating getting yourself a ‘promotion’ from Silver Advanced to a Gold Advanced. If you want to come to Albany, NY, sometime for this purpose, we have a very pleasant manual transmission car for you to use and some good routes in areas such as the Adirondacks and the Catskill Mountains (plus all the city stuff, of course!). 🙂

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