Parking a Stick shift- Emergency brake or not

The Brothers just had a caller ask a question about her car slipping down a hill when she parked it. It was a manual, and she always parked in in 1st, but didn’t use the emergency brake. They did not mention anything about not using the brake being harmful to the car. I’ve only owned 2 cars in my life, but both are manual trans, and I ALWAYS use the emergency brake, whether on a hill or flat road. My impression is that leaving it in gear puts more strain on the transmission, so why not use the brakes to help ease that strain. After all, brakes are cheaper than a transmission or clutch. And my pet peeve is when mechanics bring my car out from repair or oil change and park it WITHOUT USING THE EMERGENCY BRAKE. Am I just overly cautious, or does using the brake really helping reduce wear and tear on the tranny? Thoughts?

Clarification: I always use the emergency brake AND leave the car in gear. I never park it in neutral and just use the brake, as that leaves just one point of failure. But again, instead of just one point of failure, why not have two?

Note that manufacturers stopped using the term EMERGENCY BRAKE almost a generation ago. Your owner’s manual almost assuredly calls it a PARKING BRAKE. I’m sure a few lawsuits that happened when people tried using their parking brakes in an emergency were the cause. I’d definitely suggest using it for that purpose.

Using the parking brake and leaving it in gear just makes good sense. If you have rear drum brakes, using the parking brake also helps keep them adjusted.

Regarding the stress on the transmission, shifting into gear as you drive probably puts more stress on the transmission than leaving it in gear without the parking brake, but like I said, there are other great reasons to use both.

What you are doing is correct.

I feel I should stress one point though.

Apply the PARKING BRAKE FULLY before shifting the trans to first or reverse and ALWAYS turn the front wheels toward the curb or ditch.

I was taught to turn the front wheels to the left when facing an upgrade and allow the vehicle to roll back until the wheels touched the curb. Then set the parking brake.

I have actually seen a vehicle rolling backwards into another vehicle parked on the opposite side of the road because the parking brake wasn’t working correctly and the trans let loose and the wheel rode up over the curb.

Granted, this doesn’t happen often, but is still food for thought.

After I seen that happening, I made it a habit to turn my wheels to the right when I parked facing upgrade so that if something let loose and the vehicle rolled, it would just roll backwards into the ditch or whatever off the road.

Facing down grade always turn the wheel to the right and rest against the curb (or set it to run into a ditch) and set the parking brake.

Using the parking brake with a rear drum brake system doesn’t adjust the brakes. That system is used on vehicles with rear disc brakes to adjust the brakes.

On a rear drum brake system the brakes are adjusted each time the vehicle is backed up and the brakes are applied. This causes the trailing brake shoe to pull on the adjusting cable that causes the adjuster plate to turn the star wheel adjuster.


Yeah, I know they’ve changed to “parking brake” now, but when I started driving, it was right before that change, and so I still refer to it as “emergency brake.” My car is a '94, so it probably still reads “emergency brake” in the manual. :wink:

Stress is really not an issue about leaving the transmission in gear without using the park (correct term) brake. It’s a safety issue about the car rolling off on its own.

As to why mechanics don’t set the park brake there’s several reasons for that. The parking lot is generally level, it is assumed the car owner will be in shortly to pick the car up anyway, and the mechanic does not know if this park brake even works properly. The mechanic may set the park brake on a car on which it is seldom used, a grunged cable may hang up leading to the brakes locking or wearing out prematurely, and the shop/mechanic will then get the blame for this even though they had nothing to do with it.

While this is rare, it is also possible to have an electrical glitch in which the starter motor can engage on its own. With the park brake not set the car can start rolling under power from the starter until the battery dies, the starter motor burns up, or the car hits something.

Many years ago some VW Rabbits had a problem with a simple radio antenna cable grommet that allowed rainwater to run inside the car to the fuse block. This would then short the starter circuit in the fuse block out and off she would go on her own.
We used to see 1 or 2 of these a month with toasted batteries, starters, and a few with front end damage after smacking another car or an stationary object of some sort.
In one case a car owner noticed her car missing and reported it as stolen after a rainy night. The police found it a block away against a utility pole with a dented bumper, broken grill, and fried starter motor.

Another issue is when you only leave it in gear, the only thing that’s holding the car’s weight is the engine’s compression. Over time the compression will bleed off and if the car is on a hill it will very slowly move (assuming it doesn’t jump out of gear).

I have a seasonal truck that a few winters ago I parked on what I thought was a flat driveway. With the truck only left in gear, it moved about three feet in a month down a very gradual driveway-- I’ll bet if it’d been steeper it might have moved further.

Tester is spot on here with the adjustment issue,first car I saw this on was the SAAB 900 in the mid-80"s. GM just loved it,was not perfected on GM’s at all.

One thing I was told about late 70’s Rabbit’s and their fuse boxes was the harness to box connection was strained during assembley and this led to many electrical issues.

If you live in the rust belt it is a good idea to use the parking brake because if you don’t the cables and lever arms will freeze from rust and will all have to be replaced to get the car inspected.

Sorry, but we went through this some time ago. I finally asked the service writer about how the parking brakes were adjusted on my 2002 Sienna, because they had recommended I pay them $50 to adjust the parking brakes and I knew they didn’t need adjusting. In my village, most parking is on steep slopes, and the parking brakes work perfectly so I knew they didn’t need adjusting.

He had to go ask, because service writers usually aren’t mechanics, but on my Sienna it is indeed the parking brakes that does the adjusting. They originally had it designed so using the regular brakes when backing up did it, as you said, but they got over adjusted, so they changed it so using the parking brake did it. And, most people don’t use the parking brake, ever, so they routinely recommend having it adjusted.

When I looked at the rear brakes, it did look to me like they adjusted themselves, but I wasn’t sure, which is why I asked him.

So, while you are correct, apparently, on some makes, the correct answer is it depends upon the make.

All they did was change the name…but the function is EXACTLY the same. If you have a complete hydraulic system failure of the brake system…the PARKING/EMERGENCY brake should be able to stop you.

There was ONE rear drum brake system that I worked on that the e-brake adjusted the rear brakes…My 70’s Vega. They didn’t use the normal adjuster you see in every other drum system. And the adjuster had to replaced with each brake job…really lousy design.

Actually strain was not the problem. Other than the water down the antenna cable glitch the big problem with them was in the fuel pump circuit which ran internally through the fuse block.

Those Bosch pumps drew a lot of current and when aged drew considerably more. All of the fuse block connectors used small gauge wiring. The fuel pump current went through the relay (on the fuse block), into the fuse block, and out through a connector.
The heat would build up and burn the fuse block pins and the plastic wire plug leading to the engine quitting at any time.
In the worst cases the fuse block had to be replaced and in the mildest we used to do a bypass with the pump current and skip that connector and the fuse block entirely.

We used to get an hour of flat rate for a bypass and I did so many I got where I could do it in about 10 minutes. Even changing the fuse block became a pretty quick routine job.
This glitch continued on into the 80s.

If you live in the rust belt, there is also good reason not to use the parking brake. It can freeze to the point where it won’t release. It is rare these days for it to happen, but I thought I would throw it out there. I would use it anyway.

Not completely true. Japanese rear drum brakes are adjusted by using the parking brake. If you look at this type closely, you will see that the star wheel is just below the wheel cylinder. Each time you pull on the hand brake, one of the levers on the linkage will catch one of the vanes on the star wheel. If the linkage moves far enough, the star-wheel will click one vane, tightening the brake.

Always park with the wheels turned in the direction that will so the least damage if the holding mechanisms let go.

Not really. Try it sometime from a speed over 50 MPH. You will be amazed at how far you’ll go even if the parking brake is properly adjusted. Many aren’t. Only about 30% of your braking power comes from your rear brakes which the parking brake actuates.

I’ll bet your '94’s manual calls it a parking brake.