auto maintenance January 11, 2018

Never Get Stuck Again

Last month I listened to two people complain of the same problem. One was a customer and the other was one of our shuttle drivers. In both cases vehicles had been parked on steep hills and the drivers had great difficulty moving the shifter out of park.

The reason for this is that when you put your car in park, the parking “paw” locks inside the teeth of a gear, preventing any movement of the gear or the transmission, and locking the vehicle in place.

The problem is that on a hill, the whole weight of the vehicle presses the gear into the parking paw, making it virtually impossible to move the shifter.

The prevention of this occurrence is simple. When parking on a hill, apply the parking/emergency brake firmly before putting the vehicle in park. Then the weight of the vehicle is held in place by the brake and does not come to rest on the parking paw. I go so far as to stop in neutral for a moment, before going onto park, to make sure the parking brake is really holding the vehicle.

When you are ready to go, start the car (foot on brake), shift into gear, and only then release the parking brake.

And while we’re on the subject, get in the habit of using your parking brake whenever you park. That way it won’t atrophy from lack of use, and may even prevent a knock on the door at midnight to inform you that your Road Runner has rolled into a neighbor’s car, as happened to me back in ‘83.

I’d even recommend that you practice stopping your car with the parking brake. We used to call it the emergency brake for just that reason, and the terms were used interchangeably. I think the lawyers got to the car companies, because now it is almost universally called a parking brake, but the function hasn’t changed.

In the event of a total brake failure it can and will stop you, but with much greater effort, much more distance, and much less control. The parking brake is only connected to the rear brakes, but most of the weight is on the front, so when you apply while moving it will tend to “lock” the back wheels, leading to a screeching skid.

It’s good to know how to do it before you have to. With a little practice you can master controlling it without skidding. I once suffered a total hydraulic brake failure (a rusted brake line failed) bringing a Jeep back from Buffalo. I made it from Baltimore to Alexandria using just the parking brake. Perhaps it wasn’t the smartest thing I ever did, but I kept the speed down and a wide distance between me and the car ahead.

The one exception to the parking brake rule is a snowy or slushy day with temperatures near or below freezing. If you set the parking brake, the snow and slush pressed up against the underside of the car will freeze the cable and you won’t be able to release the brake until it’s towed to a warm shop or someone takes a propane torch to the frozen cable – an unpleasant, dangerous, and ill-advised task. (It does, however, work if done properly.)

On almost all cars and light trucks the parking or emergency brake is cable-operated and connected to the rear brakes only. It may actuate the same brakes used when the brake pedal is pushed, or it may have its own designated brake shoes. Either way, the parking brake system should be checked, cleaned and adjusted at least once a year.

So how can I get more people to appreciate and use their parking brake? How about “National Parking Brake Appreciation Week? Can I hear a rallying cry?

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