Driver Knowledge Tests

How and when to use your handbrake or parking brake in a car

With a name like parking brake, it should be obvious when you should use it, but it’s also called a handbrake, emergency brake or e-brake in various parts of the world. It’s not just as simple as understanding that you should apply it when you’ve stopped as there are other times when you should use it, and the method varies between cars with automatic and manual gearboxes.

Different types of handbrake

Different cars have different mechanisms:

  • A hand-operated lever in between the seats or, more rarely, down the door side of the driver’s seat
  • A foot-operated brake to the left of the clutch pedal
  • A switch or push button either on the dashboard or near the gearstick between the front seats
  • A hand-operated lever next to or under the steering column

Handbrakes usually only operate the rear wheels. Handbrakes can seize up if you don’t use them regularly or if the weather is very cold.

How to use a handbrake

In an emergency

A handbrake is called an emergency brake because it was originally designed to be used in an emergency if the main brakes failed. All modern braking systems have systems that make it extremely unlikely they will fail, so the emergency brake is rarely used in those circumstances. The handbrake is not a powerful brake but it can be used to slow your car down if your regular brakes fail. The only issue is that the handbrake’s operation of the rear wheels means that it doesn’t provide much stopping force and there’s a risk that the rear wheels will lock, causing you to spin if you are turning (this is the premise of a handbrake turn).

Parking with manual transmission

If you are parking on flat ground, leave the gearbox in neutral and apply the handbrake.

If you are parking facing uphill, put the gearbox in 1st gear, turn the wheels towards the kerb and apply the handbrake. If the handbrake fails, the resistance from the engine and gearbox caused by trying to roll backwards while in first gear will hold or slow down the car and any movement will be stopped when the wheels bump into the kerb.

If you are parking facing downhill, apply the same logic as uphill but put the gearbox in reverse.

It is possible for a weakly applied handbrake to slip, especially if there’s a big change in temperature which might affect tolerances. This is why it’s important to leave the car in gear when on a slope, or to chock the wheels to prevent them from rolling.

Parking with automatic transmission

Wherever you are parking, keep your foot on the footbrake, then apply the handbrake then put the gearbox in P. This is especially important on a slope because if you put the gearbox in P and release the footbrake the car will roll slightly forwards or backwards and will put pressure on the pawl (the notched wheel on the driveshaft). This will make it more difficult to get the car out of P and into gear.

While waiting at an intersection

Most people wait at traffic lights or an intersection with their foot on the brake. The only problem is, if you are hit from behind, your foot will come off the brake and you’ll be shunted into the intersection. While the handbrake is not that strong, it will be enough to absorb a lot of the force of a low-speed hit from behind.

Preventing you from rolling backwards or forwards

If you stop on an incline (i.e. facing uphill or downhill) you can use the handbrake to stop the car rolling forwards or backwards. Many new cars have a ‘hill hold’ feature which simulates using the handbrake, but they do switch off after a few seconds so you need to know their limitations. Read more about hill starts.

Darren is an expert on driving and transport, and is a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists

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