Statistics on UK manual braking habits saving lives?
April 13, 2020 2:26 AM   Subscribe

Before the coronavirus, I was learning to drive in England (thanks, Metafilter for recommending that I switch instructors). When we came to a stop at a crosswalk, the first thing we had to do is "make it safe": to pull the manual brake up, protecting pedestrians ahead of us in case of a rear-end collision. My buddy back in the States, however, insists this is ridiculous and refuses to believe that braking like this saves lives. Is there any safety data out there that I could cite to uphold the UK braking style?

I already checked numbers on traffic deaths in the UK and the U.S. It seems clear that America has way more traffic deaths than in Britain. But I wonder how much of that advantage can be attributed to other things like roundabouts, and if there's any way to drill down on crosswalk accident numbers, specifically.

I've seen a lot of discussion threads out there with people saying stuff like, "mate, what do you think is going to happen if a huge vehicle barrels into the back of your car, what's the first thing you're going to do, take your foot comes off the brake?" so that part I understand, but wonder if there is hard data out there.
posted by johngoren to Travel & Transportation around England (38 answers total)
This would be very hard to assess. The truth is that while you may be taught to drive that way in a test, many drivers on the road will not follow that approach.

Note that there are lots of differences between the us and the UK that could account for the much larger death rate there. Seatbelt wearing is compulsory in the uk, the driving test is more stringent, as you mention the road system is a bit better. We also have compulsory yearly Mots which I believe isn't the case across the us.

This article covers some other reasons.

So to answer your question, your friend is definitely wrong, it is definitely true that having your handbreak on in traffic can save both pedestrians and you hitting cars in front of you (as well as proper distancing). In practice the collision caused by this would be unlikely to kill the person unless you were hit with extreme velocity, but it would still hurt
posted by Cannon Fodder at 2:35 AM on April 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

I mean, obviously this would help in this very specific case where you’re rear-ended while waiting for pedestrians to pass at a crosswalk and you are rear-ended hard enough that your foot comes off the foot brake or your foot brake is inadequate to hold the car on its own. But I’ve never heard of this actually happening? Like of course I’m sure it has happened somewhere, sometime, but it must be vanishingly rare. Pedestrians do get hit and killed in crosswalks of course but it’s generally by drivers who just don’t stop at all. It’s a nice idea for safety and respecting pedestrian road usage and all that but I doubt it actually prevents much injury or death.

Also I don’t have actual crash data but I have gotten rear-ended (hard! the car that hit me was totaled and my car required thousands of dollars of bodywork) and pushed into the *car* in front of me without the hand brake on and I only went a couple of feet, quite slowly, and only just tapped the car in front. Even without the handbrake a stationary car absorbs a lot of energy.

Oh and lots of cars (at least in the US) don’t even have handbrakes, they have a parking brake that you operate with your left foot that cannot be engaged safely while driving.
posted by mskyle at 3:21 AM on April 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

If you're driving a manual car, and you stop with the footbrake and stay in gear, you're vulnerable to some kind of foot related mishap that causes you to come off the brake and the clutch and have the car lurch forward. Particularly if you're facing downhill.

I'm sure I've read about this happening to someone, who turned round to deal with screaming kids in the back seat and didn't realise when the car started moving forward.
posted by quacks like a duck at 3:26 AM on April 13, 2020 [5 favorites]

When you say the "manual" brake do you mean the handbrake? If so, this must either be a new instruction that people are teaching now or something specific to your instructor, as I learnt to drive in the UK in 2007 and have never heard of this recommendation.

I've also been hit from behind and managed to keep the car stationary while only using the foot brake.

There are statistics available on road accidents from 2013-2017 in the UK, including a section that covers crossings (Casualties by type of casualty -> Reported pedestrian casualties by location, age, road crossing type and severity, Great Britain).
posted by terretu at 4:20 AM on April 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Oops, yeah, handbrake, sorry. Thanks, I’d also be interested in the history of when this began as a practice if it wasn’t something that dates back to the early days of the Highway Code.
posted by johngoren at 4:31 AM on April 13, 2020

I learned to drive in the UK a couple of years ago and wasn't taught any such hard-and-fast rule about using the handbrake.
posted by matthewr at 4:33 AM on April 13, 2020

I've been driving in the UK for decades and was never taught to put the handbrake on for a temporary stop. I was taught that, when I'm waiting to turn right it's best to keep the wheels facing forwards until you actually make the turn because if you get rear-ended then you'll just be pushed forwards. If you've turned the wheels slightly to the right and you get rear-ended, you'll get shunted into oncoming traffic.
posted by essexjan at 4:44 AM on April 13, 2020 [6 favorites]

I think this would be so hard to find statistics on, because you would never be able to separate out all the different factors. I took driving lessons in both the US and the UK 20 years ago, and the laxity of the US tests are terrifying...

In my UK lessons, I was definitely taught to always put the handbreak on when stopped, no matter how short a time period. I always do it now in the US. The reasoning I was given is that when there is a collision, the domino effect of lots of cars being shunted forward into each other exacerbates the danger/damage. If everyone had their hand break/manual break on, then each car would be a less likely to ram into the one in front. Your car might still get smashed up, and perhaps one car in front of you, but not the five cars in front of that one. It was explained to me as being important when you are sitting in traffic, more so than stopped at a pedestrian crossing. More breaks = better, no matter what.

And as for the idea that it's 'too hard' to remember to put your hand break on or whatever: once you are used to doing it, it's really hard to not do it! It's all just muscle memory. I couldn't stop myself from doing it now!

The other thing is that, if it's not in your muscle memory and an automatic thing to do, you might forget to do it at times when you need to. For instance, leaving the car in 1st gear and without the handbreak when you park. My other half, who learnt to drive my manual car much later in life and therefore doesn't have it as ingrained as I do, does this all the fricking time, no matter how hard he tries to remember to put the break on. Our car has the enormous dents in the bumpers to show for it, from when he has got in the car, turned the key, and the car lurches forward without warning [into the wall/a pillar/the neighbors fence].
posted by EllaEm at 4:58 AM on April 13, 2020

I was taught to do it in the UK too. It's true that it would help in the unlikely event of being shunted from behind, but I also like that it cuts out the possibility of nudging another car through the almost imperceptible roll you can get on a very slight slope at a junction. It adds zero time to my stopping and starting - securing/releasing the handbrake is done simultaneously with the pedals - so it would seem pointless to me not to do it now.
posted by cincinnatus c at 5:13 AM on April 13, 2020

I learned to drive a manual car in the UK in 1999 and I was absolutely advised by the instructor to use the handbrake, for the exact reason you describe.
posted by quacks like a duck at 5:13 AM on April 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

This practice seems like it would be ineffective. In 99% of all cars, the handbrake operates only on the two rear wheels and provides a fraction of the stopping power of the front brakes- and that fraction is way less than 1/2. Even in the few cars which have strong rear brakes and parking brake mechanisms, there is only the contact patch of the two rear tires gripping the pavement. Keeping your foot firmly pressed on the foot brake would be far more effective at preventing the car from being pushed forward in this scenario as all four brakes & tires would be resisting the forward motion. I suspect that this practice has historical origins (early cars only had rear brakes, believe it or not) and once codified in to law/practice...
posted by Larry David Syndrome at 5:20 AM on April 13, 2020 [4 favorites]

I learned to drive in NZ in the 90s, I was taught by my father, who suggested I put the hand brake on when sitting at lights, but probably not at shorter waiting situation such as a pedestrian crossing. Some friends who were taught by instructors were taught to do this, others weren't. I don't believe it was included in the test. I know some people who will change into "park" in their automatics when sitting at stop lights now that more people are driving automatics, but the majority don't.

And yes, this is primarily for "rear ending" scenarios, whether you're at the front of the queue or in the middle.
posted by Suspicious Ninja at 5:24 AM on April 13, 2020

Anecdotally, a family member who was stopped on his motorbike at the lights got hit by the car behind when she took her foot off the brake in a sudden shock. The front of her car went under the back of his bike kind of lifting it. He got off and went over to her window to ask wtf? and she was gasping 'spider! spider! spider'. It had fallen from the visor which she'd flipped down to use the mirror and she freaked, all thoughts of the foot on the handbrake gone. He certainly taught me the value of using the handbrake at lights. It's a simple backup.
posted by kitten magic at 5:36 AM on April 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

The UK has The Highway Code, and that should be the definitive source.
posted by theora55 at 5:39 AM on April 13, 2020

For instance, leaving the car in 1st gear and without the handbreak when you park [...] Our car has the enormous dents in the bumpers to show for it, from when he has got in the car, turned the key, and the car lurches forward without warning [into the wall/a pillar/the neighbors fence].

I know a bunch of people who leave the car in 1st/reverse but each and everyone of them checks they are in neutral before starting the car. In fact that’s one of the things I was taught to check when starting a car. I was also taught to use the handbrake for hill starts and not much else. This was learning to drive a manual car in Germany in the mid 90s. I later lived in the UK for over a decade and never observed anybody using handbrakes when stopping in urban traffic.
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:50 AM on April 13, 2020

Learned to drive in NZ, would have been...mid 90s. Never heard of this. Also never heard of leaving a manual in gear when parking, unless on a hill. But also had it drilled in me to always use the handbrake when parking and it still, after 20 years in the US, freaks me out that my husband will leave an automatic in park with the handbrake off.
posted by gaspode at 6:12 AM on April 13, 2020

I got my license in 1991 and when learning was instructed to put the handbrake on when stopped at pedestrian crossings and traffic lights. I was told the same as others above, that in the event of someone running into the back of me, I wouldn't shoot forwards into whatever or whoever was immediately in front of me.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 6:57 AM on April 13, 2020

I know a bunch of people who leave the car in 1st/reverse but each and everyone of them checks they are in neutral before starting the car.

Most manual cars these days have a clutch interlock (as in, the starter won't work unless you press the clutch pedal); my truck has a switch to bypass that which theoretically would be useful in some very specific off-road situation (I've never needed to use it). But some cars I had in the past didn't have an interlock, so if you hit the starter with it in gear it would indeed leap forward or backwards.

Back to the original question, I had a friend who learned to drive in the UK in about 1990, and that is how she was taught. It always seemed to me like something that would add a small amount of safety in some very specific and probably rare situations, and to my knowledge isn't part of driving instruction in most of the world.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:00 AM on April 13, 2020

wonder if there is hard data out there

I think the folks most likely to have any relevant hard data in the US would be the National Transportation Safety Board.

But count me among those who think it's going to be difficult to impossible to get any sort of useful data-based comparison - first, both the NTSB and the UK equivalent would have to collect enough detailed data, and sort it in a such a way that you could find direct "stopped at a crosswalk, was rear-ended, causing injury/death to pedestrian in crosswalk" numbers, then be able to further sort those incidents into "handbrake on vs. handbrake off." This seems like an unlikely level of detail for traffic incident statistics.

Second, even if I'm wrong about the level of detailed info collected and available, to get a useful comparison metric (like the % of these specific incidents as a subset of traffic injuries in general) you would then have to figure out how to compensate for the massive difference in number of cars (quick Google suggests there are 33.6 million UK drivers vs. 227.5 million US drivers) and number of roads/crosswalks (which I can't even begin to figure out how to find these numbers) in each country.

IOW, even if you could get to the point of knowing "the US had X thousand incidents where someone in a crosswalk was injured by being hit by a car without its handbrake on due to being rear ended by another car" and get the same incident number for the UK, the sheer number of incidents isn't a useful comparison because the US has so many more cars and miles of road than the UK.
posted by soundguy99 at 7:24 AM on April 13, 2020

In practice the collision caused by this would be unlikely to kill the person unless you were hit with extreme velocity, but it would still hurt

The plural of anecdote isn't data, but I saw somebody killed in a very similar way in the UK while I was walking to school one morning. In this case it involved two large, heavy vehicles.

Sad story obviously, so feel free not to read on.

A woman dashed across the road in front of a bus; the driver braked hard and, as a result, she was hit quite lightly by the bus as it was coming to a stop. She ended up lying immediately in front of the bus, as the impact had only knocked her off her feet. (So at this point the situation is a stationary vehicle at traffic lights, plus victim in front, although the unfortunate person was already prone in this case.) Then a Landrover hit the bus from behind and pushed it over her.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 7:47 AM on April 13, 2020

Do all/almost all cars in the U.K. have handbrakes? I am having trouble finding reliable information, but many cars and trucks in the US have a foot pedal emergency brake, which you release with either a lever or by pushing the pedal back in. This is partially correlated with automatic transmissions (though some autos have handbrakes, especially today) and historically with bench seats. Use of a foot pedal emergency brake for regular braking seems like a way to burn out the emergency brake (by forgetting to disengage it) in a hurry.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 8:16 AM on April 13, 2020

I don't have data for the OP. However, if my copy of Driving: The Department of Transport Manual (dated 1977) is still valid, then the original premise of the question is wrong.

The advice is: (my emphasis) "Generally, when the vehicle is stationary the handbrake should be applied. ... [discussion of brief stops] But as a general rule you are safer with the handbrake on whenever your vehicle is stationary."

The safety of other vehicles or pedestrians that you may run into is secondary.
posted by StephenB at 8:24 AM on April 13, 2020

There's a Mitch Hedburg joke driving the car with the handbrake in place (which I too have done) so I have my doubts it would help much except in a very tiny subset of accidents where you are rear ended, but your car is still operable.

I've actually been rear ended a few times, in an automatic (at various speeds) and in low speeds it's easy to maintain foot-pedal braking and at high speeds your car careens out of control and the engine cuts out, so any injuries or damages to cars in front of you is due to carried momentum, which the handbrake doesn't help with.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:51 AM on April 13, 2020

Some UK data: Page 6 here says: " Of the 5,396 pedestrian KSIs, 62 per cent of these occurred when the pedestrian was crossing the road without being masked by a stationary vehicle, and 15 per cent where they were masked by a stationary vehicle while crossing." So (in 2013) 15% of 5,396 or approximately 809 pedestrians were killed or seriously injured at marked crossings "while masked by a stationary vehicle." That would include not just stationary vehicles hit from behind, but also pedestrians getting hit in another lane by a vehicle passing the stationary vehicle.

Some US data: This report says that in 2017, 5,977 pedestrians were killed (versus the UK stat "killed or seriously injured"). Of those 18% were at intersections — which is usually where the crosswalks are. But there is no info on how many of the US deaths were in situations where they were "masked by a stationary vehicle."

Of interest, over the years the UK pedestrian KSIs are declining while the US pedestrian deaths are increasing. Also, most UK pedestrian KSIs happen at crosswalks, versus most US pedestrian deaths happening away from intersections. Again not apples and oranges, but it appears the Brits are much better about crossing at crosswalks than Yanks.

The UK deaths (as opposed to KSIs) were 398 in 2013, which comes to around one per 167,000 population. The US deaths in 2017 were 5,396 or one per 60,000. Based on that, you could conclude that all relevant factors together (speed, alcohol, signage, handbrake use, etc.) give the pedestrian better odds in the UK than in the US. But you'd need much more granular data to know how many lives the handbrake use might be saving.
posted by beagle at 8:53 AM on April 13, 2020

Of interest, over the years the UK pedestrian KSIs are declining while the US pedestrian deaths are increasing. Also, most UK pedestrian KSIs happen at crosswalks, versus most US pedestrian deaths happening away from intersections. Again not apples and oranges, but it appears the Brits are much better about crossing at crosswalks than Yanks.

I would consider this to be apples to oranges, as in most of the US, crosswalks are relatively rare (so officially crossing one requires you to go way out of your way). Also the number of walkers is increasing in the US in recent years, while the infrastructure and driving rules hasn't caught up with that fact, which leads to the US being much more dangerous to walk, compared to the UK or other parts of Europe.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:58 AM on April 13, 2020

When I was learning to drive (UK, about 15 years ago) my excellent driving instructor instructed me to always use the handbrake to hold the car still when stopped, e.g. at traffic lights. For one thing, if you don't use the handbrake then you must be using the footbrake - so you will have the brake lights on, dazzling the driver behind, which is worth avoiding in itself.
posted by vincebowdren at 9:30 AM on April 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

USian here. I've yet to meet a single person who engaged the handbrake with enough force to do any good whatsoever. You can literally drive the car off with the brake engaged and not notice anything before the smell of burning brake pads. People do slightly better with the foot-operated parking brake but not much. Yes, this is a pet peeve of mine.
posted by sjswitzer at 11:53 AM on April 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

so you will have the brake lights on, dazzling the driver behind, which is worth avoiding in itself

Counterpoint: Wouldn't having the brakes lights on be a good thing?
posted by sjswitzer at 11:56 AM on April 13, 2020 [8 favorites]

Reinforcing what people have said about the parking/hand brake being pretty weak AND the laxness of US driving tests: I took my driving test with the parking brake on the whole time, and I passed. Many apologies to Rob, whose car I borrowed for the purpose of the test, and who I think I've only seen once in the 20 years since. I promise I've gotten better at driving.
posted by mskyle at 12:04 PM on April 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Go easy on yourself; it was Rob's fault. :)
posted by sjswitzer at 12:11 PM on April 13, 2020

When driving a manual car, I’ll pull on the handbrake whenever I’m in neutral. In practice that means whenever I stop moving for more than a few seconds. At traffic lights: yes. At a zebra crossing: maybe.

Aside from habit - it seems more convenient that way. I have two feet, so one for the throttle & one for the clutch when I’m moving off. If I needed another foot for the brake pedal, I wouldn’t have enough. So, use the handbrake instead to avoid rolling. Doesn’t really apply in an automatic, which are obvs more common in the US, to add to other differences.

I suspect that the story the OP heard from their driving instructor has little data behind it, and is just a conversation-ending answer to the Why? question.
posted by rd45 at 12:12 PM on April 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Wouldn't having the brakes lights on be a good thing?

They can be, sure. But once you and the car behind you have both come to a halt, your brake lights don't really communicate any new information. You've stopped, they've stopped, so the car behind should (ideally!) wait to see you pull away before moving forward themselves. And some cars do have really bright brake lights, which are presumably designed for better visibility at 70mph on a motorway on a wet rainy night, in which case it's very much a relief if the driver does take their foot off the brake pedal when you're directly behind them.
posted by randomonium at 3:04 PM on April 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

I would be freaked out by a car ahead of me not having break lights on when they are stopped. That communicates to me that the break is in, and when the light goes off, it communicates to me that they've started moving. Please don't do that. Keep your foot on the breaks to communicate the right thing to the driver behind you.
posted by MythMaker at 4:55 PM on April 13, 2020 [7 favorites]

Rule 114, Highway Code: "In stationary queues of traffic, drivers should apply the parking brake and, once the following traffic has stopped, take their foot off the footbrake to deactivate the vehicle brake lights. This will minimise glare to road users behind until the traffic moves again."

MythMaker - this will depend on where you are driving. I don't use it as a signal of whether a stopped vehicle is about to move or not because I'm in the UK and most don't keep their footbrake on in traffic - which does to me seem safer, as some stopped vehicles will be parked and have brake lights off anyway. Using lack of brake lights on a stationary (as opposed to moving) vehicle as an indicator of imminent movement seems to me like a recipe to increase your chances of ramming a parked car.
posted by Vortisaur at 11:03 PM on April 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

Learned to drive in NZ and again in UK. Was taught to secure the car if coming to complete stop. Can’t say I was taught to use handbrake at crossings in particular but would do so if people are taking their time..

Being from a hilly city the hand brake is used a lot for me which was commented on by my UK instructor. It wasn’t until I got a car with an automatic handbrake that I realised how much of a security blanket this is.
posted by BAKERSFIELD! at 11:37 PM on April 13, 2020

I was taught this when I learned to drive in the UK back in 1990 or so & continue to use the parking brake in this way to this day. As far as I’m concerned it’s a completely normal way to drive a manual transmission vehicle.

Putting the parking brake on means that if anything happens there’s a much reduced risk of the vehicle you’re in rolling into a dangerous position. This isn’t just about collisions from behind (although that’s a part of it), it’s also about anything that might take your attention away from controlling the vehicle - maybe a medical problem, the afore-mentioned spider in the car, whatever it might be, the car will stay put. If you’re waiting at a set of lights that gate entry to a fast road, this could easily be the difference between life and death. It’s a "fail-safe" approach to driving - the vehicle should be in a safe state if at all possible should something go wrong.
posted by pharm at 6:05 AM on April 14, 2020

nb. You can’t tell whether other drivers are using their parking brakes in this fashion in the UK because putting the parking brake on doesn’t activate the brake lights. Everyone might be, or no-one. But I bet a lot of people do, because it’s how we were taught.
posted by pharm at 6:07 AM on April 14, 2020

I'm an american, and I was taught to drive on a manual car but I haven't driven one in over 20 years.

I was taught to leave enough space between me and the car in front of me so that I can see their wheels. That way if I need to move the car quickly, I have enough space to turn the wheels and drive away. Putting the handbrake/parking brake on would make that impossible. At least if you leave a lot of distance between cars, the chances of being pushed into it and causing a chain reaction are minimized, though this doesn't help if you're the front car.

Currently I drive an automatic which has an electronic parking brake. You can activate it while in drive, and apparently it's supposed to automatically disengage if the gas is applied. It seems to not actually do that. I think I'd probably do a ton of damage to my car if I tried to apply the parking brake at every intersection.
posted by cali59 at 10:02 PM on April 15, 2020

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