How to Test Vehicle Braking Distance

By: Josh Briggs  | 
Four men riding on the Test Track ride at Disney's Epcot Center.
Guests ride the Test Track at Disney's Epcot Center. The ride lets them feel the effects of high-speed braking.
Matt Stroshane/Getty Images

While Disney's Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla. is home to some of the most unique attractions in the world, one of the park's most popular attractions is the nearly one-mile journey as a crash-test dummy in Test Track. Riders ascend hills, travel through high-banked turns, and feel the effects of high-speed braking both with and without the aid of anti-lock brakes [source: Disney].

Although most of us cannot experience that five-minute joyride on a whim, we can experience the limits of our braking system by testing braking distance. In this article, we'll explore the critical factors involved in determining your car's limitations and braking distances.


Thinking Distance and Reaction Time

A vehicle traveling at 60 mph (96.5 kph) covers 88 feet (27 meters) per second. When you go to brake, it typically takes you about three-quarters of a second to realize you need to hit the brakes and another three-quarters of a second to actually push the brake pedal. These are your perception and reaction times respectively.

In other words, that's 132 feet you'll travel before you even begin to stop. Add in factors such as vehicle weight, gravity, and traction and you are looking at a braking distance of close to 300 feet or the length of a football field before you'll come to a complete stop [source: Edmunds].


Testing your vehicle's braking distance can be the difference between a near-miss and a serious accident on the road. However, determining the equation for your speed and reaction time requires some careful calculation. Let's start by looking at the factors that contribute to braking distance in the next section.

Vehicle Stopping Distance Factors

Before you even think about running any vehicle through a braking distance test, you should consider several factors that will inevitably affect the outcome. After all, it's more than just mashing the brake pedal. Let's take a look at each briefly.

Tires and Traction

Tires are one of the most important elements when stopping a vehicle quickly and efficiently. When engineers calculate braking distance, they use several variables. One of them is traction coefficient. The higher the traction coefficient is, the shorter the braking distance will be [source: Jones & Childers]. Thus, the braking distance can change greatly based on the type and condition of the vehicle's tires.


Tires with little or no tread will be more susceptible to skidding during heavy braking. When the tires skid (a decrease of the traction coefficient), they lose traction and increase the braking distance. Tire compound or makeup can also change braking distance. Some high performance tires offer better adhesion under heavy braking and won't break loose or skid as easily as harder tires.

Braking and Suspension Systems

Tires work hand in hand with the vehicle's braking and suspension systems. If any of these components aren't up to specification, the vehicle's braking distance can change. Worn brake drums, rotors, pads, shoes or leaky brake lines will have an adverse affect on braking. And since weight transfer has so much to do with braking, worn shocks and springs will only add distance during braking.

When these components are worn, the weight wants to move to the front of the vehicle when you hit the brakes hard. And we've already illustrated how weight contributes to braking distance.

Road Conditions

Finally, road conditions will affect braking distance. Dirt and gravel roads don't offer good traction and increase braking distance. Freshly paved asphalt offers the best adhesion.

Consider the weather too. Wet roads increase braking distance. Snowy and icy roads decrease traction even more. Driver ability and whether or not the vehicle is equipped with an anti-lock braking system (ABS) must also be taken into consideration.

These conditions all factor in braking distance. As you'll find out next, the driver plays a key role in all of this too. In the next section, we'll take all of these factors into account and go through a braking test. Let's get to it.


Testing Vehicle Stopping Distance

Yellow car speeding along a straight road in the desert.
Try this braking test on an empty road or track in good condition.
4 Eyes Photography/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Let's set up a typical braking test by taking into consideration the factors we discussed in the previous section. For this test, we'll assume the vehicle is in good working order. Let's also assume the road is dry asphalt and in good condition. Mark a beginning point and physically measure the distance from that point to the vehicle each time. Now let's get down to business.

If your vehicle has an anti-lock brake system (ABS), conduct the test with it both on and off. While this test can be done at various speeds, auto manufacturers typically conduct braking tests at 60 mph (96 kph). We'll do the same.


Tips for Braking Without ABS

Find a closed area without traffic or obstructions. Once you get the vehicle up to the test speed, start braking. Without anti-lock brakes, you can easily lock up the front tires and end up skidding, which can easily translate into loss of control and even a spin.

Your goal is to hit the brakes as hard as you can until just before the tires start to skid. Keep two hands on the steering wheel and avoid overcorrecting if the rear of the car wants to come around. Conduct this test a few times to get the feel for your braking system and reaction distance.

Tips for Braking With ABS

Next, turn on the ABS and conduct the test again. With the ABS on, the car will feel different when you hit the brake. It's because the ABS pumps the brakes for you to the point where the tires are on the verge of losing traction.

Sensors use feedback to dictate how much brake to use to stop the car as quickly as possible while avoiding tire skid. Some antilock systems even have a brake assist that takes over from the driver and applies the most amount of stopping power available [source: Edmunds].


Practice Safely to Improve Your Driving Acumen

When practiced safely, these braking distance tests can give you crucial insights into your vehicle's speed, your reaction time, and the total stopping distance you require. Each driver has different abilities. Some have better reflexes than others; some are more experienced.

The best thing you can do is give yourself room between your car and the vehicle in front of you and pay close attention when you drive. A good rule of thumb is a three to four second gap. Add more distance if the road is wet. You can figure this out by counting the time it takes for you and the vehicle ahead of you to pass a certain point on the road.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Helperin, Joanne; Memmer, Scott. Edmunds. "Keep Your (Braking) Distance: More Than Just Slowing Do." Nov. 23, 2000. (Oct. 19, 2010)
  • Jones & Childers. Contemporary College Physics, 3rd ed. "The Friction of Automobile Tires." 2001. (Oct. 20, 2010)
  • U.S. Department of Transportation: National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. "Brake Testing Methodology Study - Driver Effects Testing." March 1999. (Oct. 20, 2010)
  • Walt Disney World. "Test Track." (Oct. 20, 2010)