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10 Times You Should Be Using Your Emergency Brake—And 3 Times You Shouldn’t

It was one of the first things you learned in driver's ed, so of course you know when to use your emergency brake…or do you?

women are the handbrake and Parking Brake carPhotos box/Shutterstock

Are you sure you’re using yours correctly?

Every car has an emergency brake—whether it’s a manual lever in the center console, a foot brake on the floor near the pedals, or a modern electric push-button in the dashboard—but many drivers don’t know when they should be using it. Not really, anyway. So, what’s the story? The emergency brake was designed to hold, not stop, a vehicle, but using it can help you regain control of your car in extreme situations. There are other times you should be using your emergency brake, too, including a variety of parking situations. Here’s when you should be using this important safety feature—and when you shouldn’t. While you’re at it, you should also brush up on these driving etiquette rules you may have forgotten since driver’s ed.

modern suburban family life - 2 cars & a housedebr22pics/Shutterstock

Every single day

Applying the parking brake every day can take pressure off the transmission and other drive components, including the parking prawl, which locks up your transmission when you park but, of course, could always malfunction. According to Firestone, you should actually engage your emergency brake before shifting into Park “to limit the stress that’s put on your transmission, provide you with an extra layer of security, help prevent parking failure, and even prevent transmission repairs down the road. Think of the two systems like a dynamic duo—they’re better together!” Does your car have these 16 safety features no vehicle should be without?

foot pressing the brake pedal of a carNor Gal/Shutterstock

When your brakes fail

As its name implies, the emergency brake is there for emergencies. One of the most critical and frightening emergencies for a driver is when the brakes fail. In the event you are unable to stop your car, Nationwide Insurance suggests that you “slowly pull up on the emergency brake handle or press the pedal down to come to a complete stop.” Here are another 10 scary driving scenarios and exactly how to handle them.

Car parked on the steep hill.Finmiki/Shutterstock

When parking on a hill

The classic and most obvious time to use your emergency brake is when you need to park your car on an incline. Whether you leave your car facing uphill or downhill, you will want to use the emergency brake to ensure you don’t find your vehicle at the bottom of the hill! This isn’t the only trouble you can get into when parking. Here are 9 smart tips for fighting a parking ticket.

Orange Nissan X-Trail third generation Car Parked At Street. Side ViewGrisha Bruev/Shutterstock

When parking on flat ground

Yes, you read that right. Numerous automotive experts say that you should use your emergency brake whenever you park your car, whether you’re on a hill or not. One reason for such frequent e-brake usage? “Emergency brakes that aren’t used can rust, which makes them less likely to work properly in an emergency,” according to Nationwide.

Oil stain on the pavement under the car. Dirty asphalt under the car.AntiD/Shutterstock

If you have a brake-fluid leak

According to Chaya M. Milchtein of MechanicShopFemme.com, “If you lose hydraulic power in your brakes (i.e., if you get a fluid leak), you can slowly apply your parking brake to help you get control of your vehicle.” Admittedly, this is not a perfect fix, says Milchtein, “as the parking brakes are intended to keep your car in one place and not stop a running car because they only engage the rear wheels.” But desperate times call for desperate measures, and this is one of those times—and something that can help you until you’re able to pull over safely. Don’t miss these 23 car gadgets that make driving safer.

Auto towingMikadun/Shutterstock

While your car is getting serviced

“When your vehicle is being flat-bedded for service, you should apply the parking brake to remove the stress from the transmission,” says Lauren Fix, the Car Coach. Using the emergency brake when your car is getting serviced can also help keep the mechanics safe while your car is being loaded onto their truck. If your car needs a flatbed for service, it might be time to get a new ride. Check out the 10 cars you should buy used—and the 5 you shouldn’t.

Closeup for car flat tireicolourful/Shutterstock

When changing a flat tire

Fix also suggests using the emergency brake when changing a flat tire. This is an important safety precaution that will ensure the rear wheels don’t spin during the tire swap. This, along with blocking the tires with rocks or blocks, will keep the vehicle from rolling. Of course, it’s also essential for your safety to change a tire on flat ground, notes Edmunds.com. By the way, this is how long you can drive on a flat tire.

Cars parked along the street.Dmitri Ma/Shutterstock

When parking along a curb

The primary reasons to use your emergency brake all involve, in some way, a parking scenario. Richard Reina, Product Training Director at CARiD.com, adds parking along a curb to the list. “When parking along a curb in close quarters, use of the parking brake can help prevent transmission damage if your car gets nudged or bumped in its parking spot,” he explains. Plus, it can prevent your car from rolling if it gets hit. These are the 15 things you should do within 10 minutes of having a car accident.

Cars touching bumpers at a residential parking lot is a typical sight living in a big congested city.Raymond Deleon/Shutterstock

When parking close to another car

If you’re parking anywhere near another car, use your emergency brake. “When you are parked close to somebody else, the emergency brake prevents the car from rolling,” explains Tommy of Vekhayn.com. “Because even if your car moves just an inch, it can cost you hundreds of your hard-earned dollars [if you cause damage to that nearby parked car].”

Examiner filling in driver's license road test form sitting with her student inside a carMonika Wisniewska/Shutterstock

During a road test

Of course, any potential drivers need to demonstrate their ability to use an emergency brake properly during a road test. But the DMV examiner also needs full access to it because, well, have you seen some new drivers on the road? According to ItStillRuns.com, that’s why the New Jersey DMV requires road tests to be taken in a vehicle that allows the examiner to be able to reach the parking brake. Before showing up for a road test, check your state’s DMV requirements, because cars with foot e-brakes may not be able to be driven during the test, making an old-fashioned center-console parking brake a necessity. Could you pass the driver’s test again? Find out!

A snow covered car drives in winter stormbibiphoto/Shutterstock

But don’t use your emergency brake during a snow or rain emergency

An emergency’s an emergency, right? Wrong. Anthony Diemedio, a service technician at Rafferty Subaru in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, warns against using the emergency brake in a driving emergency that happens when it’s snowing or raining. “The rear wheels will lock up and you will lose more control and make things worse,” he explains. Read on for the other instances when using your emergency brake is a big mistake.

Car on the street covered by icy rain Jaromir Chalabala/Shutterstock

When temps dip below freezing

While you’ll obviously need to use your emergency brake when it’s cold outside, you should be wary when the thermostat stays below freezing for a significant amount of time. According to How Stuff Works, “the emergency brake cable can become frozen and fail to release when the lever is disengaged.” If your emergency brake freezes up, don’t simply forge ahead and try to drive like that. Instead, wait for the brake to thaw or jack up the car and use a hairdryer to bring the temperature up. By the way, here’s the safest (and fastest) way to remove snow from your car.

Woman driving a cartiti-kako/Shutterstock

When driving your car in normal circumstances

“Riding the brake” while driving causes friction of the brake pads against the rotors; that produces heat and makes the brake fluid boil. According to the Car Talk column in SF Gate, “Boiling brake fluid can’t transmit pressure to the brakes. So you may step on the pedal and the brakes don’t work!” While most drivers have accidentally left on the emergency brake at some point, it’s important to be vigilant and make sure your emergency brake isn’t engaged while driving. In fact, this is one of the ways you’re shortening the life of your car.

Jeff Bogle
Jeff Bogle is an Iris Award-winning photographer, avid traveler, and English football fanatic who regularly covers travel, culture, cars, health, business, the environment, and more for Reader's Digest. Jeff has also written for Parents Magazine, Esquire, PBS, and Good Housekeeping, among other publications. He is the proud dad of teen daughters. You can follow his adventures on Instagram and Twitter @OWTK.