Do I need to use the emergency brake when parking a car with a manual transmission?
August 9, 2009 9:29 PM   Subscribe

Do I really need to use the emergency brake when parking my car?

After years of driving manual, my husband and I bought a car with an automatic transmission. My husband insists that it's not enough to just put the new car in "park" when parking it -- we need to use the emergency brakes too. He says his father told him that if you don't use the emergency brakes, the cable stretches and the emergency brakes stop working.

Can this be true? The cable stretches if you don't use it? It sounds...unlikely to me. I always used the emergency brake and put the car in reverse when parking cars with a manual transmission, but automatic cars have that handy "park" setting. What if I just use that?
posted by Badmichelle to Travel & Transportation (29 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Technically, yes. In the Park position, the output shaft of the automatic transmission is locked in place by means of a pin inside the transmission. In other words, in 'Park' the transmission is locked up and the wheels can't turn. This is why people can get away with not engaging the parking brake. But the pin is relatively tiny and the transmission and output shaft are massive, and relying on this pin (called the prawl) places the entire transmission mechanism under stress. In park, a car can gently be rocked forward and back, evidencing the placement of stress and torsion on the transmission.

The parking brake (it is not typically called the emergency brake, at least not on european auto-transmission cars) engages a drum brake that while not nearly as strong as the disc brakes that you use while driving, are enough to keep the car immobilized.

Proper stopping procedure:

Stop, with foot on brake.
Emergency (or parking) brake.
Put transmission in 'park'.
Take foot of regular brake. - Car should not move.

Proper start:

Foot on brake.
Release parking brake.
Put car in drive.

And for God's sake please remember to release the parking brake before you start driving.
posted by Pastabagel at 9:43 PM on August 9, 2009 [13 favorites]

Also, your title is confusing. You are asking about whether you have to apply the parking brake on a automatic transmission car, right? Your title says 'manual'.

Re the cable: the cable stretches if you do use it, think of a ten-speed bike's brake cable. This cable is cheap. Also, you won't snap it unless you are really cranking it tight - but you don't need to apply that much force for it to do its job.
posted by Pastabagel at 9:47 PM on August 9, 2009

My dad always says this too, although he says that the cable will "freeze up" if not used regularly. Nice to hear that it has a nugget of truth to it.
posted by cabingirl at 9:54 PM on August 9, 2009

Yes. Always use your emergency brake. This isn't a matter of whether you're on a hill or not, or whether a cable will stretch or not. This is simply a sound practice. Car in park (or in gear if it's a manual), emergency brake on. This is an important habit to be in. It can make te difference between yor car rolling away or not. If your car gets hit by another, it can make the difference between the car being shoved a few feet or sent down the road until it finds an obstacle to hit. Emergency brake - every time!

As far as the cable stretching - brakes are adjustable with this in mind.
posted by azpenguin at 10:01 PM on August 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Oops -- sorry about the confusing title. I'm up too late. Thanks for the info, all. I'll use the emergency brake . . . and let my husband know he was right.
posted by Badmichelle at 10:15 PM on August 9, 2009

Well, half right
"He says his father told him that if you don't use the emergency brakes, the cable stretches and the emergency brakes stop working."
no one here has said that.
What people are saying is if you don't use the brake you might break something else.
posted by Iax at 10:38 PM on August 9, 2009

It sounds to me like what your husband's father really meant was that if you never use the parking brake, then in a situation where you really do need it you may be surprised to find that it is out of adjustment and no longer engages. Many parking brake mechanisms are designed to be self-calibrating with a ratchet mechanism which can compensate for stretching of the cable; but this only works when they are regularly engaged.

Another version of this is that if you chronically ignore the parking brake it can seize or rust in place, again potentially at great surprise to you when you do actually try to use it.
posted by Rhomboid at 10:41 PM on August 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Pastabagel and Rhomboid. AND the principle of double safety.

A friend parks his car always only with gears engaged (okay: manual transmission - but this is not essential for my argument). One day he was in a rush and forgot. When he turned, his car was hobbling downhill, went straight across a very busy intersection - emerging miraculously undamaged on a patch of greenery. Discussing this event afterwards, he would vehemently defend his previous practice: no, it was entirely okay not to use the parking brake because the gears normally hold the car in place. What happened did happen because he forgot doing this, not because it is better to engage the parking brake as well.

I am, in contrast, superstitious enough to believe that the so-called human factor is a real thing (as opposed to a one-time abnormality) that has to be tamed and soothed on a regular basis: I park with first gear engaged plus the parking brake, even on flat lots.
posted by Namlit at 1:59 AM on August 10, 2009

Badmichelle: Thanks for the info, all. I'll use the emergency brake...

See, it makes sense that one wouldn't readily accept the need to use an emergency brake to park - after all, standard parking is not an emergency, nor is it particularly likely to cause an emergency. The alternative moniker of parking brake is much more accurate:

The most common use for an automobile emergency brake is to keep the vehicle motionless when it is parked, thus the alternative name, parking brake. [source]

I suspect that if you had been raised calling it a parking break, it never would have occured to you to not use it whilst parking.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:07 AM on August 10, 2009

I was taught to use it even when stopped at lights.
posted by scruss at 4:43 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Generally, I was raised only to use the emergency brake when parking on any type of incline. When parking on a flat surface, there isn't a need for applying it. It's deemed the emergency brake, as in, in case of an emergency (the regular methods of keeping the car in one place fail), the emergency brake will keep your car from rolling away. This link actually advises against using the brake unless on a hill or in a manual. Likewise, I also found a few links stating that the brake should be used, not to avoid stretching the wire, but to prevent rust from building up.

Obviously, you need, no, MUST call these people to get the definitive answer. :)
posted by Atreides at 4:54 AM on August 10, 2009

I grew up in Ohio, where it's very, very flat. Nobody I knew used the parking brake on an automatic transmission car, even on hills (though typically a "hill" was just an inclined driveway). It was the "emergency brake" and I was taught that if I used it too much, it would stretch out the cable and render it useless.

Then I moved to New England, where it is "the parking brake". Almost everyone I see uses it all the time, and the transplanted Californians I'm friends with are used to engaging it all the time in case of earthquake. I now use it to park on in my very steep neighborhood streets, but in flat parking lots I never use it.
posted by olinerd at 4:59 AM on August 10, 2009

Here is another thing to think about:

What would you rather have damaged if your car is hit while you are parked? The emergency brake, or the transmission? Because if the e-brake is not set, all of the force from the crash will go into the transmission, the little pin will break off, and the next time you drive somewhere the loose pin will grind your transmission to bits.
posted by twblalock at 5:14 AM on August 10, 2009

My Mazda uses the actual rear brake calipers to lock the back tires. As Mazda brake calipers are known to be bad and expensive to replace, I have been informed not to use the parking brake unless on a hill.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:24 AM on August 10, 2009

Speaking of Car Talk, this is what they had to say about it back in 1993. In sum: Use the parking break when you're parked on a hill. Otherwise, don't bother.
posted by jedicus at 6:10 AM on August 10, 2009

In 20 years of driving, I've only ever used the emergency brake when parking on crazy steep hills, and I've rarely seen anyone else use it either. So I'm mystified at those of you saying you use it daily.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:13 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Disuse won't prematurely stretch the cable of a parking brake. That makes no sense! Even if it did, you can just adjust it: both at the lever and at the brake. I would be more worried about the springs going or the pads getting frozen in place. Every few months, you should engage the parking brake from about 15 MPH (30 KPH) and let it bring you to a stop. Keeps the pads and drums in top nick.

Honestly, from years of automatic transmission experience, you don't have to use your parking brake in most circumstances. On a hill, certainly. But in the flat parking lot of your local store, it's unnecessary.
posted by luckypozzo at 6:17 AM on August 10, 2009

And for God's sake please remember to release the parking brake before you start driving.

Sometimes I don't know what's going on with the car, and I'll drive for ten miles with the emergency brake on. That doesn't say a lot for me, but it doesn't say a lot for the emergency brake. What kind of emergency is this? I need to not stop now. It's not really an emergency brake, it's an emergency make-the-car-smell-funny lever. --Mitch Hedberg
posted by ArgentCorvid at 6:21 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Speaking of Car Talk, this is what they had to say about it back in 1993. In sum: Use the parking break when you're parked on a hill. Otherwise, don't bother.

They did not say don't bother. The said that using the parking brake to prevent wear on the parking pawl only matters when parked on a hill. It can be difficult to get the transmission out of park when on a hill unless you use the parking brake properly. They did not address the issue of using the parking brake for safety.
posted by JackFlash at 6:30 AM on August 10, 2009

I once mentioned to my (European) girlfriend that she ought to leave the car in gear when she parks and her reply was that proper procedure is to have the parking brake on, but the car out of gear - so you can be nudged forward or back if someone else needs to make room while parking. This, apparently, is what she was taught in driving school.

Having said that, MY main use of the parking break is for doing low speed 180 degree turns while pretending to be Starsky.
posted by skintension at 7:15 AM on August 10, 2009

The said that using the parking brake to prevent wear on the parking pawl only matters when parked on a hill.

Take it from someone who has driven cars well beyond the 250,000 mile mark, into their 20th year wil the original transmission. Car Talk is wrong. Unless the surface you are parked on is perfectly level, the transmission will be placed under some stress. The car weighs 3000+ pounds, and the transmission and wheel mechanisms are surprisingly low-friction, so even with a slight incline, the car will start to move. Experiment: Park the car somewhere you don't think you need the parking brake. Put the car in park, shut off the engine, then put the car in neutral. Does the car start to roll, even a little? When you put the car in park and take your foot off the brake, does it rock back or forward a bit before coming to rest? That's the transmission locking up, under stress. (Stress + metal) * repetition = mechanical failure.

The transmission is $4000. The cost to repair a parking brake is maybe $300 parts and labor. The precious cable that everyone is worried about stretching is at most $35. The purpose of the transmission is to transmit power from the engine to the driveshaft to move the wheels. The purpose of the parking brake is to stop the wheels. Use the thing that is designed to stop the wheels to stop the wheels.
posted by Pastabagel at 7:29 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I grew up in the south where it was relatively flat and no one I knew (parents, friends, etc.) used the parking brake unless parked on a really steep hill. Then I lived in Pittsburgh during grad school, which is basically a city of hills, so I started using it all the time, and kept doing so even after I left there. It is much more reassuring to me to know that the brakes are holding the car still rather than a tiny little pin on the transmission. Even if you park in a "flat" parking lot, you can often feel the car roll forward or backward ever so slightly if you don't engage the parking brake. As others have said, even that small amount of pressure is putting stress on your transmission.
posted by Nothlit at 8:07 AM on August 10, 2009

A couple of years ago my wife and I were parallel parking on a moderate (maybe 5°) slope here at the University of Virginia. While we were still in the car, we watched four students pile into a car and try to extract the vehicle from their tight parallel parking spot. While backing up, they bumped the unoccupied SUV behind them. It was hard enough to warrant getting out and checking the bumper for damage, I suppose, but soft enough that there's really no way any damage should have been done.

But that was moot—upon the bump a snap emanated from beneath the SUV, and it started to roll. Slowly at first, but it picked up speed, rolling backwards into a busy University Avenue. My wife had the presence of mild to hold down the horn on the car, and soon a chorus of people joined in, trying to warn motorists of the danger. The SUV picked up steam, began to veer to the side, and finally smashed into a tree at perhaps 30 MPH. By the time it came to a rest, I was halfway to it, having been running after it and shouting for people to get out of the way. By an enormous stroke of luck, nobody was hit.

The poor girl driving the car that did the bumping was in a panic. As my wife and I attested to the police officer, she struck the car, true, but not anywhere near hard enough to have caused such a thing to happen. It was clear to us what had happened: the SUV was left in park, but without the emergency brake on, and that little pin holding it in park had failed under the stress. With nothing left holding it in place, it just rolled away.

I park on that hill every day. But now I angle my wheels as far to the side as they'll go. And I put on the emergency brake.
posted by waldo at 8:07 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm the OP's husband.
Let me clarify the advice my father gave me: He told me that the parking brake needs to be engaged every time you park to keep the cable from seizing, rendering it useless. (Keeping the cable and its associated pulleys in regular use would prevent road gunk and such from seizing the pulleys and scraping the cable.)

Badmichelle has consented to allow me an "I told you so," moment of gloating. :)

And Props to all those who remember to angle their wheels when parked on a slope! I usually forget, but will try to take extra care to do so in the future.
posted by I, Credulous at 8:31 AM on August 10, 2009

What type of car do you have? In Ireland, we rented an automatic Opel Astra. The guy at the rental place told us their "N" was the same as our "P," so we didn't use the parking brake. When we came back to our car (which was parked on a very slightly sloped) surface had rolled away! After that, we used the parking brake.

I have never had something like this happen with any car I have driven in the US (incidentally, the Opel was/is owned by GM).
posted by parakeetdog at 9:34 AM on August 10, 2009

Use the parking brake! But don't use it when you park your car for a long time, because the brake pads can become stuck to the brakes! This is especially bad when long term parking at the airport in winter. Sucks the R&R right out of you when coming back :-)
posted by mmkhd at 9:35 AM on August 10, 2009

I always use the parking break in cities that are tow crazy too because I was told it makes your car less likely to be towed. I have no idea if this is actually true.
posted by WeekendJen at 1:41 PM on August 10, 2009

There is no drawback to always using the parking brake, so why wouldn't you be double safe and use it?
posted by Simon Barclay at 5:13 PM on August 10, 2009

I would love to start using the parking brake. But I am not the only person who drives my car, and undoubtedly I could not get the other person to start using it, and he would forget and drive off with the brake still engaged.
posted by IndigoRain at 6:19 PM on August 10, 2009

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