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 is everything you need to know about the parking brake and why you should use it.
What you need to know about 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.
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.
When it comes to manual transmissions, the parking brake is essential. Leaving a manual transmission in gear does not lock the vehicle in place, it simply makes it harder to move, but it can still roll away. The parking brake should be engaged every single time a manual transmission vehicle is parked.
How parking brakes work
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.
Steel cables are attached to the parking brake lever 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.
Keep in mind
If the car is hit while parked the parking brake will provide stability to the vehicle, and in most cases will prevent it from rolling away.
It is best to engage the parking brake while the brake pedal is being depressed, before shifting into park this will reduce the strain on the parking pawl.
If the parking brake isn't used regularly, the cables, which are located under the car can corrode and get stuck in place. This can become a big problem, as you may not be able to use the brake or the cable will snap when you try to engage it.
Do not forget to disengage the parking brake before driving, as it can damage the entire braking system.