Car Advice

How to brake properly – 14 tips

Sadly, most people don’t know how to brake properly. And that’s why we’ve come up with 14 tips to help you brake like a pro.

THE FIRST RULE for braking when road driving is not to. You should be using skilled observation of traffic situations to avoid the need to slow down, or be surprised so that you end up braking harshly at the last minute. If you can do that then you’ll use less fuel, and move from A to B quicker as you won’t need to spend time accelerating again, because you’re already at speed.

For example, see that red light in the distance?  Don’t rush up to it and slam the anchors on, cruise up and cruise through as it turns green. What the roundabout?  Time your entrance so you don’t need to slow down. And, no, we’re not suggesting you can just blast your way along no matter what, just that observation is everything when driving.

Sooner or later you will need to brake. The right way is smooth… gently apply pressure up to a maximum, and then ease equally smoothly off the pedal. The throttle is not a light-switch, it’s a dimmer switch. Bad drivers just jump off the brake pedal, and everyone feels a momentary jerk as the weight transfers off the front wheels.  Good drivers progressively release the brake and transition to the accelerator so smoothly nobody can quite tell when braking has finished. You’re better able to be smooth if you’ve practiced that good observation so you’re looking well ahead at all times.

Coming to a stop also separates the good driver from the bad.  The bad way is the taxi stop – constant brake pressure, then the car rocks back on its suspension as it comes to a halt. The good way is the limo stop – as the car is about to halt relax the brake pressure so you almost roll to a stop with no nosedive and rocking backwards.  Don’t forget to leave enough space between you and the car in front such that you can see its rear tyres – that way you can manoeuvre out of the way if needs be.  But in the case of an emergency all that goes out the window.

Emergency Braking with ABS

Most cars these days have ABS, and the braking technique is simple. Smash your foot to the floor and keep it there, regardless of whatever pulsing you feel through the pedal. The main advantage of ABS is that it doesn’t lock the wheels, which allows you to brake and steer, as opposed to non-ABS cars which would lock the front wheels – then you’re travelling in a straight line regardless of what you do with the wheel. One other tip for an emergency stop is to look where you want to go and steer where you want to go.  You tend to hit what you’re looking at.  Some driving experts may query the exact technique described above, perhaps favouring a less aggressive stab of the brakes..but let’s be honest in real-world situations with non-expert drivers slamming you foot to the floor quickly is the best move, and modern cars are designed to handle it.

Emergency Braking without ABS

If your car doesn’t have ABS then braking is more complex.  You need to quickly and firmly squeeze on the brakes, but don’t stab as that might lock the wheels.  Increase brake pressure rapidly, but if the wheels lock then you must instantly relax the brake pressure a fraction, then reapply. Do not jump off the brakes, it’s just a fractional easing, and then instantly reapply.  In effect, you’re doing what ABS does.  How do you know when the wheels lock? You’ll hear a sudden squeal, but remember a little bit of tyre noise is normal when braking hard. 

If you brake without ABS on dry roads and the wheels lock up then your stopping distance will be about what it would have been had they not locked.  However, you won’t be able to steer.  A standard demonstration on car control courses is brake hard enough to lock the front wheels, turn the steering wheel to full lock, and the car carries on dead straight.  To regain steering control, you need to again relax that brake pressure just a fraction which frees up some tyre grip for turning as opposed to using it all for braking.  If you had ABS that would be done automagically for you.

If emergency braking without ABS sounds difficult, well, it is.  That’s why ABS is such a lifesaver.  Best advice is to find a deserted road and practice (from only 60km/h) or better yet, go on low-risk driver training course.  But remember, the best drivers never need to do emergency stops because they’ve observed and anticipated the problems before they actually happen.

Braking wisdom – true or false

You should use the engine to slow down.  Mostly false.  Back in the day brakes on cars were very poor, so you had to select lower gears and slow down that way. Today, car brakes are more than up to the task of slowing the car. But there are two exceptions to the rule; first is when you are face with very long downhills that require a lot of braking, especially when towing or heavily loaded.  Here it is a good idea to select lower gears and have the engine assist the brakes to avoid overheating.  The second is when you are driving in very slippery conditions. Here it is better to select a lower gear and let the engine slow the car to reduce the risk of skidding. This works because the engine is trying to drive the wheels at a lower speed yet still rotate them, as opposed to braking which simply tries to stop the wheels from turning.

ABS is bad on dirt roads. This used to be true, but is now mostly false. On loose surfaces like dirt it is better to lock the wheels up a bit when you brake; a sort of skidding as it forms a neat pile in front of the tyres to help with the braking process.  Old ABS systems never did that, and the vehicle barely slowed down.  Modern ABS systems adapt to the terrain and slow vehicles down nicely whatever the terrain.

Brake before a corner.  True, and false. The absolute safest way to corner is to slow to the desired speed before a corner.  However, advanced drivers often get the bulk of their braking done before a corner, and smoothly reduce the braking as they turn in. This is a racetrack technique called trail braking, and can sometimes be used on the road too but nowhere near to the same extent as you’d use on a track. Be clear on this – you do the bulk of your braking before the turn, and have begun smoothly releasing pressure as you turn.

Should I cadence brake?

If you have to ask, then no. Cadence braking is where you brake hard, then release the pedal pressure momentarily to return a bit of grip to the tyres for steering, then brake hard again. ABS does this for you but much better. The technique still has applications in very special circumstances such as when you’re in a 4WD sliding downhill!

Does my car have ABS?

Almost certainly yes, it’s been a long time since they were made without.  There are exceptions even today though such as the Land Rover Defender 130 ute.  The way to tell is to ask your mechanic, or to find a deserted road and do a full-on emergency stop from around 60km/h.  If the wheels do not lock you have ABS.

Should I use my left foot to brake?

A big question we’ll cover in a follow-up article.  In short, you can if know how but don’t be thinking left foot braking is something you need to learn to be an effective and safe road driver.

Can I trust autonomous emergency braking (AEB)?

No, and here’s an explanation of why.

What’s ABS, EBD and EBA and should I care?

ABS is anti-lock braking (German acronym).  It stops the wheels locking up when you brake so you retain steering control.  It doesn’t necessarily stop you any quicker in the dry, but makes braking a lot easier.  EBD is Electronic Brake Distribution.  Computer automagically distribute braking pressure between all four wheels for maximum effect.  EBA is Electronic Braking Assist.  Computers detect when you’re about to panic stop, and help you apply maximum braking pressure.  These are great aids, and pretty much all new cars come with them.

Did you know:

  • Some modern cars automatically activate the hazard lights when you brake very hard;
  • Cars with electronic park brakes (instead of a handbrake) may be fitted with an emergency stop system where you can pull the brake at speed and it’ll stop the car by applying the normal footbrake.  If you try this do make sure you are on a deserted road, and that your particular car actually has this feature!

Overheated brakes? 

By the way, if you do overheat your brakes you’ll feel they are less effective. That will be one of two problems; either the fluid will be overheated, in which case you will get “soft pedal” where you need to press the brake pedal harder and further to slow down. The only solution here is to replace the brake fluid, which is a simple and cheap job.

You may also get “hard pedal” where the brake pedal feels normal, but simply isn’t effective. This is probably due to overheated and glazed pads.  The solution here is to have the brake discs “machined” to remove the brake residue, again not an expensive or difficult job for a brake specialist. To some extent once the hard braking is over your brakes will recover, but they will not be able to operate at top performance and you don’t want to find that out as you do an emergency stop.


Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper is a motoring journalist, offroad driver trainer and photographer interested in anything with wings, sails or wheels. He is the author of four books on offroading, and owns a modified Ford Ranger PX which he uses for offroad touring. His other car is a Toyota 86 which exists purely to drive in circles on racetracks, and that's when he isn't racing his Nissan Pulsar. Visit his website: www.l2sfbc.com or follow him on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/RobertPepperJourno/