When Should You Use the Parking Brake?

Do you need to use the parking brake (also called the emergency or handbrake) every time you park your car, even if your car is an automatic? The answer is yes, and here are the most important things to know about the parking brake and why you should use it.

What is the Parking Brake?

The parking brake is an essential component of your vehicle's safety system and it should be used on a regular basis - not just when the car is parked on a hill. While a parking brake is usually recognized as essential in a manual transmission vehicle, it should be considered just as important in an automatic transmission vehicle as well.

When a car with an automatic transmission is put into park, a device inside the transmission called a "parking pawl" engages. A parking pawl is a metal pin that engages into a notch ring that is attached to the transmission's output shaft. When engaged, the pawl restricts the transmission's output shaft from turning.

How Does the Parking Brake Work?

In most vehicles, the parking brake is a completely mechanical system that bypasses the hydraulic braking system to stop the car in an emergency or keep it in place when parked. Some vehicles have a hydraulic and electric parking brake system rather than a mechanical one.

Steel cables are attached to the parking brake button (or lever in older vehicles) and when the lever is pulled the cables tighten, pulling another lever that compresses the brake shoes (on drum brakes) to stop the vehicle or hold it in place. On a disk brake system, when the parking brake lever is pulled, it engages a corkscrew device, which pushes a piston into the brake pads stopping the vehicle.

Parking brakes are also outfitted with a self locking mechanism so the parking brake will not release until the lever or in some cases the parking brake pedal is released.

Should You Always Use the Parking Brake?

As stated before, yes, you should always use the parking brake when parking your vehicle. Unfortunately, parking pawls can break or possibly become dislodged. While this is not a common occurrence it can happen, and if it does your car may end up rolling down the street.

A parking brake on the other hand will hold the vehicle in place even if the parking pawl breaks or dislodges. The parking brake is a manual system that puts a stronger hold on the vehicle than simply putting it into park.

How to Use the Parking Brake

Parking brakes, while mostly straightforward, can be misused due to a lack of proper instruction. Some vehicle models have different parking brake systems from others. The two most common brake control systems are the hand lever and the foot pedal.

The following instructions explain how to engage each system:

  • Hand Lever: Pull the lever upwards with a firm and continuous motion until you feel resistance. For cars with a release button on the lever, you may need to press it before pulling.

  • Foot Pedal: Push down on the pedal until you feel it engage firmly. You should hear a click or feel the pedal stay in the depressed position.

Make sure the lever or pedal is as far as it will go without forcing it. If your vehicle has an indicator light for the parking brake, it should be illuminated.

Always confirm the parking brake is fully engaged by gently attempting to move your vehicle with the parking brake set. If the vehicle does not roll, the brake is applied properly. If the parking brake won’t engage, contact a local mechanic to have the parking brake inspected.

The following steps outline how to disengage each system:

  • Hand Lever: Hold the lever and press the release button, then lower the lever back to its original position. Release the button once the lever is fully lowered.
  • Foot Pedal: Locate the release lever, which is typically above the pedal. Pull this lever to release the brake. Some vehicles may require a simple push down on the pedal again to disengage.

Ensure that your parking brake is completely disengaged before driving. Failing to do so can cause significant damage to your vehicle's braking system over time. Additionally, an indicator light or a warning message should turn off to confirm that the parking brake is fully released. If the parking brake is stuck engaged, you may need special tools to help disengage the system.

The Dual Role of the Parking/Emergency Brake

Many drivers recognize the parking brake as a staple feature for keeping their vehicle parked, but not everyone is aware of its dual functionality as an emergency braking system. This often-overlooked aspect of the parking brake can be crucial in unexpected situations on the road.

In the event of primary brake system failure, the parking brake doubles as an emergency system. Whereas the primary brakes are operated hydraulically, the emergency brake is typically mechanical, functioning independently of the main braking system. This is a design feature that allows the driver to stop the vehicle during an emergency failure of the hydraulic brake system, though with less force and therefore requiring a greater stopping distance.

This dual role enhances vehicle safety, both when stationary and in motion. However, it is critical for drivers to understand the limitations and proper use of the emergency brake to ensure its effectiveness in a crisis situation.

Using the Parking Brake Additional Comments

Engaging the parking brake serves multiple purposes for vehicle safety and maintenance. The parking brake provides stability to the parked vehicle, minimizing the risk of it rolling away if hit or on an incline. To ensure optimal function, it's advisable to engage the parking brake while depressing the brake pedal, before shifting into park, thereby reducing strain on the parking pawl mechanism. However, neglecting regular use of the parking brake may lead to issues such as corrosion and cable jamming, jeopardizing its effectiveness and potentially causing snapping when engaged. Remember to always disengage the parking brake before driving to prevent damage to the braking system as a whole.

If you’re having any trouble with your vehicles parking brake system, make sure to contact a local mobile mechanic at YourMechanic to inspect the parking brake

Next Step

Schedule Parking / Emergency Brake does not work Inspection

The most popular service booked by readers of this article is Parking / Emergency Brake does not work Inspection. Once the problem has been diagnosed, you will be provided with an upfront quote for the recommended fix and receive $20.00 off as a credit towards the repair. YourMechanic’s technicians bring the dealership to you by performing this job at your home or office 7-days a week between 7AM-9PM. We currently cover over 2,000 cities and have 100k+ 5-star reviews... LEARN MORE


The statements expressed above are only for informational purposes and should be independently verified. Please see our terms of service for more details

Recent Parking / Emergency Brake does not work Inspection reviews

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35 years of experience
342 reviews
35 years of experience
BMW 528i L4-2.0L Turbo - Parking / Emergency Brake does not work - Austin, Texas
Charles was very nice, professional and helped figure out what my car needed in a quick and timely manner. Much appreciated!
Nissan Pathfinder - Parking / Emergency Brake does not work - Pflugerville, Texas
He was very knowledgeable. This my first time using this service and I was surprised by the professionalism of Charles


14 years of experience
781 reviews
14 years of experience
BMW 550i GT V8-4.4L Turbo - Parking / Emergency Brake does not work - Atlanta, Georgia
Tinashe arrived early to my house. He completed a full diagnostic of the problem in a timely manner. I would definitely recommend this technician and this company to anyone. Job well done.


19 years of experience
363 reviews
19 years of experience
Honda Fit L4-1.5L - Parking / Emergency Brake does not work - Passaic, New Jersey
Luis was great. He communicated with me about his arrival time, he was friendly and talked to me about my car like I was an intelligent person. Answered my questions. And fixed the problem! I live in a condo building and except in an emergency, we're not allowed to work on our cars in the gated parking lot or garage. Otherwise, I would book Luis for the follow-up work that he recommends. Thank you Luis!


27 years of experience
184 reviews
27 years of experience
Infiniti M45 V8-4.5L - Parking / Emergency Brake does not work - Nashville, Tennessee
Properly diagnosed and fix the problem that I was having with my car. He even cleaned the brakes when he didn't have to.

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