The parking brake, when used correctly, is a very powerful tool in ensuring the safety of your vehicle and those around you when parked.
However, there is an abundance of contradictory information available that can often be confusing to the unaware, increasing the potential for property damage and bodily injury from something as unassuming as a parked car!
So, I decided to bust the myths about parking brake and write the informative article about it. After reading it, you’ll be a parking brake expert!
Table of Contents
Should You Use Parking Brake When Parking?
In most cases, you should always use your parking brake when parking your car. It prevents your car from rolling, no matter if it’s a manual or automatic trasmission.
Engaging the parking brake in a vehicle equipped with a manual transmission will prevent the vehicle from rolling when you want it to remain in one place.
Even in vehicles with automatic transmissions, there are distinct benefits and safety considerations that support use of the parking brake when parking.
However, there are certain situations in which the parking brake use is unnecessary and even frowned upon, such as on perfectly flat land or during select winter conditions. But no need to worry, I’ll touch on all the important situations in this article!
What are the Consequences of Parking without the Parking Brake?
There are a multitude of things that can go wrong if the brake is not properly utilized when parking a vehicle.
If a car with a manual transmission is parked on the ground with even the slightest incline without the parking brake engaged, the car will begin to roll, posing a risk of injury to the driver and bystanders, as well as a risk of damage to the vehicle.
Even if the vehicle is left in gear, there is the possibility that the incline is great enough to overcome the compression of the engine and allow the vehicle to roll.
If your vehicle has an automatic transmission, it is still important to use the parking brake, even after the gear selector has been put in the “park” position.
Automatic transmission vehicles have a parking “pawl”, which is a small metal piece that locks against the gears to keep the transmission from turning when in the “park” position.
Parking on an incline with only this parking pawl stopping the entire vehicle places an immense amount of stress on the transmission, which can lead to its failure, allowing the vehicle to roll away. This is why it is important to use the parking brake when parking, even in a vehicle with an automatic transmission.
Is the Parking Brake Necessary for Parking on Flat Ground?
While not as important as parking on an incline, it is still strongly recommended that you use the parking brake even when parking on flat ground.
The ground may appear flat, but actually have a slight slope that could cause the car to roll away over time.
In the event of an accident in which another motorist strikes your parked car, your vehicle has the chance of rolling away, increasing the risk of damage to your vehicle and to others.
If a vehicle with a manual transmission is not parked properly with the vehicle in gear and the parking brake engaged, something as small as a person leaning on it could cause the car to begin rolling!
Parking on an Incline? Pull Up that Parking Brake!
Always properly engage your parking brake when parking on any amount of incline. Especially if the vehicle is not left in gear, the vehicle will begin to roll away as soon as the driver takes their foot off of the brake pedal.
It may not always be obvious at first, but even a slight hill can cause a car to quickly accelerate due to gravity and run away from its parking space.
Even if the vehicle is left in gear, a steep enough hill will overcome the motor’s compression braking and roll away no matter what gear it is in.
In automatic transmission vehicles, the parking brake is especially important to protect the transmission against the stresses of the weight of a vehicle parked on a hill.
Do You Need to Use the Parking Brake While Stopped at Stoplights?
One place where using your parking brake is not necessary is when stopped at traffic lights while driving.
Generally, if you are occupying the vehicle and have access to the brake pedal, you should not use the parking brake when stopped in traffic.
While this may seem like a convenient way to give your braking foot a rest when at a stop, it leaves you at risk of forgetting that you left your parking brake on and attempting to proceed forward while the parking brake is engaged.
Doing so carries the risk of undue clutch wear, transmission damage, and even the failure of the parking brake mechanism itself.
There is, however, an exception to this rule for drivers of vehicles equipped with a manual transmission. If you are stopped in traffic while pointed uphill, the parking brake can be a useful tool for drivers to hold the vehicle’s brakes while freeing up their feet to work the clutch and accelerator pedals to get off to a smooth start.
Just be sure to fully disengage the parking brake when it’s time to get moving!
Should You Use the Parking Brake When Leaving Your Car Parked for Long Periods of Time?
It’s always smart to use the parking brake when parking, but it’s an especially good idea when leaving your vehicle parked for a long period of time.
If outdoors, wind forces can cause a vehicle parked without the parking brake engaged to begin rolling unintentionally.
People bumping into the long term parked vehicle would also cause unwanted movement of the vehicle.
Even if the vehicle is parked in a garage on what appears to be perfectly flat ground, minor inclines over a long enough period of time can cause the car to roll just enough to potentially damage the structure surrounding it.
It’s always good peace of mind to do something as simple as using the parking brake before parking any vehicle for long periods of time.
Why Should You Avoid Using Parking Brake in the Winter?
There is, however, one environment in which you do need to think twice about parking brake usage: winter driving conditions.
In certain cold weather conditions, water from snow, ice, or slush can gather on the parking brake mechanism under the car. If allowed to sit long enough in below-freezing weather conditions, this could cause the parking brake mechanism to freeze in place.
This makes the parking brake incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to release, preventing you from driving away from your parking spot. At this point, the only solution is to let the ice thaw or risk damaging the parking brake mechanism by attempting to break the ice away from under the vehicle.
So if you’re driving in wet conditions in below-freezing temperatures, be sure to thoroughly assess your situation to limit the risk of a frozen parking brake! If you cannot use the parking brake, be sure to park on as flat of ground as possible and leave the car in gear to minimize the risks of parking without a parking brake.
These situations are rare, but they do happen. It is still always a good idea to use your parking brake in winter when there is little to no risk of the mechanism freezing.
Can a Parking Brake Mechanism Break Down from Overuse?
Typically it is very unusual for a parking brake mechanism to fail from overuse. As long as the vehicle is kept in good working order and the parking brake mechanism is inspected for rust semi-regularly, the threat of parking brake failure is miniscule.
Sometimes a cable-operated parking brake can stretch over time and require occasional adjustment.
However, if the underbody of the car is very rusted and corroded, the integrity of the parking brake could be compromised and may require more periodic inspection from a professional auto mechanic.
If it ever seems like your parking brake is not operating correctly, you should strongly consider addressing the situation sooner rather than later with an auto mechanic. Remember, your parking brake also acts as your emergency brake when driving!
Remember to park on flat ground and in gear until you can get the parking brake fixed!
Can I Park My Car in Gear Without the Parking Brake Engaged?
Sometimes You can park your car without the parking brake. The compression from the engine provides decent rolling resistance. It is best practice to park with your vehicle in first gear or reverse, as this resistance is greatly multiplied in lower gears.
Leaving the vehicle in gear will prevent the car from moving in most cases on flat ground.
When parking on an incline, however, there is no replacement for the parking brake. A steep enough incline will cause the vehicle to overcome the rolling resistance provided by leaving the vehicle in gear alone.
Regardless of the parking situation, it is always a better idea to engage the parking brake as a failsafe than to rely only on leaving the car in gear.
Is Using the Parking Brake 100% Foolproof?
As with most things in life, nothing is foolproof. Parking Brakes can fail from time to time, although this is extremely rare so long as the vehicle is properly maintained and in good working order.
There are always exceptions and extreme situations, but these are so uncommon they are not even worth thinking about.
So use your parking brake with confidence in order to park safely and minimize risk of injury to bystanders and damage to your vehicle or surrounding property.