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Is a Parking Brake the Same As an Emergency Brake?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The terms parking brake and emergency brake are used interchangeably in the automotive world to refer to a purely mechanical brake system that can be actuated in the event of hydraulic failure, or used to secure a car when the motor is off and the car is parked. The term used depends on the scenario. In an emergency situation, the emergency or e-brake can be used to stop a car safely. In daily use, the parking brake is used as a safety measure to prevent the car from rolling. Like the rest of the brake system, this brake should be regularly inspected to ensure that it is performing properly.

The parking brake is made up of a series of steel cables that run from the rear brakes to a pedal or lever by the seat of the driver. When the driver activates the brake, the cables pull taut, bringing the brake pads into contact with the surface of the brake and stopping the car or preventing it from moving. Because the cables are attached to a ratcheting lever or pedal, when the driver removes the hand or foot used to activate the brake, it will still hold. In order to remove the brake, the driver must take another action, such as pressing a button and lowering the lever.

Although this brake is attached to the regular brakes of the car, it is independent of the hydraulic braking system connected to the brake pedal. In an emergency situation where the hydraulic brakes fail, the driver may still be able to stop the car using the emergency brake. It is recommended that a driver downshift before applying the emergency brake, as this will slow the car significantly, and reduce the grabbing feeling that accompanies high speed use of the emergency brake. In addition to being more comfortable for driver and passengers, this is also a safety measure, as if the car is traveling at a high rate of speed, it can fishtail or spin out when the emergency brake is applied.

When parking a car, it is important to set the parking brake, so that if the car slips into gear, it will not roll. This applies to vehicles with automatic transmissions as well. In addition, drivers who are parking on a hill facing downhill should turn their wheels toward the curb or side of the road, so that if the brake slips, the car will roll off the road, rather than into it. When facing uphill with a curb present, the wheels should face into the street, so that the car will roll back slightly and bump into the curb if it rolls. If there is not a curb, the wheels should face towards the side of the road.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WikiMotors researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon991459 — On Jun 23, 2015

It is not an "emergency brake". It is a "parking brake". Try stopping your vehicle with it and you will see why is is not something you would want to count on in an emergency. Manufacturers have not referred to it as an emergency brake in decades for that reason.

By anon69722 — On Mar 09, 2010

anon45921: The terms are used interchangeably in the automotive industry. An e-brake is a parking brake, and vice-versa, they perform both functions.

A parking brake does not "come on all at once" unless you cause it to.

For instance, if I actuate the ratcheting pedal on my parking brake only slightly, the shoes/pads (depending on setup) make only gentle contact. The vehicle would slow down very gradually. If I press the ratcheting pedal down harder, as far as it goes, the shoes/pads make contact much harder and the vehicle is brought to a stop more rapidly. This applies to all parking brakes/emergency brakes. They are not binary on/off switches, but you can make it *seem* that way if you nail the pedal hard and fast. That applies to your regular hydraulic brakes too.

bobolou: If you could drive like that without noticing, your e-brakes are fairly ineffective anyway. In which case, no, they likely would not cause significant wear.

Depending on the setup, they may even use completely independent friction material and thus cause no wear at all on the primary friction material. Either way, I'd say no real harm was done.

Dayna: It won't hurt anything, and it can even help. But to what degree it helps depends on the brake design.

In all cases, it helps keep the cable from seizing over many years due to lack of use. In some cases (rear drum setups) it can also help keep the rear brakes adjusted when the self-adjuster isn't doing its job 100 percent. But I wouldn't do it every single time. Just now and then is enough.

By anon45921 — On Sep 21, 2009

This article is not 100 percent true. An emergency brake can be used for a parking brake, but a parking brake cannot be used for an emergency brake. An emergency brake comes on gradually as you pull the lever (or push the pedal). A parking brake comes on all at once and locks the wheels, very dangerously.

By anon41112 — On Aug 12, 2009

Is using the park position for parking a good idea?

By bobolou — On Feb 27, 2009

I drove a truck a few miles with the parking brake on. After I stopped, I released it and then re-applied it and it still seems to work.. my question is could I have done any damage to my regular brakes which are power brakes, not air brakes. thank you for any advice.

By dayna — On May 31, 2008

Is it beneficial for your car to set your emergency brake every time you park, even on a flat surface?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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