Brakes are important, aren’t they? Will you risk driving your car knowing that it might not stop when you want it to? Now you understand. However, other than the braking systems like disc brakes or drum brakes, there’s another kind of brake that often goes unnoticed when we talk about car maintenance.

Let’s take a “brake” from talking about your vehicle’s primary braking system and take a moment to check out the secondary braking system.  This is the ‘hand brake’, more technically called the emergency brake. These brakes are applied when the car is parked, so that it does not move on its own or on a slope.

You’ve likely heard it referred to the emergency brake (e-brake), parking brake, and hand brake. For the purposes of this article, we are going to call this the emergency brake, but all of the aforementioned terms are correct. This article will help you understand what the emergency brake is, how to use it properly, and why it should not be overlooked during brake maintenance.


Depending on what type of vehicle you have you may find your emergency brake action in a few different places. A center lever between the front seats, next to the gear stick shift, is common on many smaller vehicles (pictured). A pedal on the far left side of the primary brake pedal is also common in many vehicles. Electric brakes are becoming more common these days as well. These are usually button-operated and located somewhere on the center console. Some older vehicles may have a lever somewhere by the steering column under the instrument panel.

The emergency brake is completely independent of the vehicle’s primary hydraulic braking system. This mechanism is usually made up of cables underneath the vehicle that extend to spring-operated levers at the rear brakes. Some vehicles use separate brake shoes for emergency brakes while others connect to the rear brake callipers. Electric emergency brakes engage via motors at the rear wheels instead of the cable mechanism. Fully engaging the emergency brake locks the rear wheels only.

The emergency brake is designed to bypass the hydraulic braking system in case of an untoward failure of primary brake, be it disc brake or drum brake. When applied, the metallic cable connected to the emergency brake passes through an intermediate lever, enhancing the power of the pulling. Then comes an equalizer that splits that power evenly between the brakes.

Mostly, the disc brake or drum brakes have a connection to a mechanical lever. In the case of a disc brake, the existing calliper piston is likely to have a connection to an additional lever and corkscrew. On pulling the brake, the lever forces the corkscrew against the piston. On the other hand, if it is a drum brake, the metallic cable has a direct attachment to the lever on the brake shoes.

Caution! Do not use the handbrake if the foot brake is still working. It may disrupt the brake’s balance and the vehicle might lose control.


As one of its other names implies, the emergency brake is most often used as a parking brake. This is why you will hear it referred to as the “parking brake” at least as often as the “emergency brake”. When an automatic vehicle is placed in “park” the vehicle is held in place by the transmission. 

Placing a manual transmission vehicle in any gear while the engine is not running works in a similar way although it is not as reliable as placing an automatic in “park”. Engaging the emergency/parking brake acts as a secondary mechanism of ensuring the vehicle does not move when not being driven. Although rarely used in automatic vehicles, the importance of this is greatly increased when parking on hills or slanted driveways.

Now that we know why it is often called a parking brake, let’s look at why it is also an emergency brake. As mentioned before, it is completely separate from the primary hydraulic braking system. If the primary braking system were to fail for any reason the emergency brake can be used to bring the vehicle to a stop. 

The emergency brake only activates at the rear wheels and is not as forgiving as the primary brakes. It is important to only use when needed and to apply slowly if the vehicle is moving.

Additional Read: Disc Brakes vs Drum Brakes 


When the emergency brake is operating properly this will hold the vehicle in place by itself, regardless of the primary braking system or the transmission. If you stop your vehicle on a hill, place the vehicle in neutral, and engage the emergency brake fully, your vehicle should not move. If you can feel it slowly rolling at all, the emergency brake needs to be serviced. Some of the parts may require replacement or some simple adjustments.

Checking and adjusting the emergency brake is often done when servicing the rear brakes. At InstaMek we always check the emergency brake at this point to ensure safe operation. This is the right time to find out what shape it is in, rather than when you need it to fulfil its name as an emergency brake.