Old-Fashioned E-Brakes

Back in the covered-wagon days, settlers faced quite the challenge when trying to navigate down steep hills or mountains. Wagon drivers often had to tie a large log to the vehicle to create drag. And as a precursor to modern emergency brakes, they would also tie up one wheel with chains [source: McLynn].

When to Use the Emergency Brake

Using the emergency brake to stop a moving vehicle outside of a total brake failure is not recommended and can damage your brake system. This is why it's not a good idea to pretend you're a racecar driver and slam on the e-brake to spin in a circle. Driving with your emergency brake engaged can also cause damage to the emergency brake cable and the service brakes. If this happens to you, have your brake shoes and rotors checked as soon as possible, to ensure everything is OK.

The most common use of the emergency brake is as a parking brake. Those who drive manual transmission vehicles, or stick shifts, usually engage the emergency brake every time they exit the car. If not engaged, the car might just roll away all on its own. Automatic transmission drivers tend to use the emergency brake far less, if at all.

It's recommended that you engage the emergency brake anytime the vehicle is parked on a hill, whether it's an automatic or standard transmission. For an automatic, setting the emergency brake before you release the service brake pedal will keep weight off the transmission, making it easier to shift out of park [source: Rubenstein].

The emergency brake can also be used as an aid to manual transmission drivers to prevent rollback when starting on a hill. Pulling the emergency brake while stopped, and then letting it out as you release the clutch can be tricky, so you might want to practice this maneuver before depending on it. Make sure there's no one behind you if you've never done it before -- especially if your father is with you, and you only have a learner's permit.

It's easy to forget that the emergency brake is on if you don't use it often. To prevent driving off with the brake still engaged, try to set the brake as hard as you possibly can. Then leave an item on or around the lever, such as a cell-phone charger cord or a spare piece of paper.

Emergency brakes can be dangerous if they're not properly used. Read on to learn how to use emergency brakes the right way.