A Driving Instructor's Blog

Refer also to this article on whether or not to push the button when you use the handbrake. This article updated following a reader question on STOP junctions.


I saw a “debate” a while back on one of the forums about using the handbrake. It was started by an ADI whose pupil got a driver (“minor”) fault for not using it at a junction. Of course, as far as the ADI is concerned, it is the DVSA who is wrong. Heaven forbid that his pupil might actually have been at fault.Handbrake

Driving: The Essential Skills (TES, 2010/11 version) – which is effectively the syllabus that learners should be taught from – says:

You should normally apply the parking brake whenever the vehicle is stationary.

Apply the parking brake and put the gear lever into neutral when you’re stopped at traffic lights or queuing behind other vehicles, unless the wait is likely to be very short.

Your foot could easily slip off the footbrake if, for example, your shoes are wet or if you’re bumped from behind. You could then be pushed into another vehicle or a pedestrian.

The use of the parking brake is even more important in vehicles fitted with automatic transmission. The parking brake will avoid

  • the possibility of ‘creep’
  • the vehicle surging forward if the accelerator is pressed accidentally while in D (Drive).

The important bit is in that second paragraph – “unless the wait is likely to be very short”. It couldn’t really be much clearer. Furthermore, you are going to be marked on the use of the car’s controls on your test, and if you don’t use the handbrake in a situation where really you should then you will pick up a driver fault at the very least. You might even pick up a serious or dangerous fault if, for example, you roll back towards someone or over a give way line towards traffic.

On the matter of putting the car into neutral, I really only advise this if you know you’re going to be waiting for longer than usual, and that you’ll have time to put it in gear without getting into a flap. If you do it when you’re at the front at normal traffic lights, and they’re the ones where there is only enough time on green for a handful of cars to get through at the best of times, you will annoy other drivers if you only start trying to get it in gear and drive off once they’ve changed. This is likely to pan out even worse for learners and new drivers, who might struggle to find the right gear quickly, possibly choose the wrong one, and stall as they panic. I prefer my pupils to be ready to move off promptly.

With some temporary lights, or in very heavy and slow-moving traffic where you are a long way back in the queue, there may be a longer wait, so there is a good excuse to go to neutral and rest your legs. The same is true at level crossings, where you can calmly get ready as the train passes and the barriers begin to rise. The decision about whether to put the car into neutral or not is the driver’s. Just remember that it isn’t a fault keeping it in gear at traffic lights, nor is it a fault putting it into neutral – but  screwing up when you try to move off probably is. You simply do what is most appropriate – and what is easiest for you to deal with.

As for the handbrake, at junctions I advise my learners to be aware of the gradient. Not using the handbrake on downward-sloped junctions sometimes makes more sense than not using it on upward-sloped ones. If you stop on an upward slope, the car will immediately start to roll back as soon as you release the footbrake to go for the gas. If you’re good at it then it is possible to get going quickly and safely, but many learners panic and lift the clutch too fast, resulting in a stall. This is a prime example of a situation where a learner should be taught to use the handbrake, whereas an experienced driver probably wouldn’t need to.

At some stage, most learners ask something along the lines of how long they should be stopped for before using the handbrake. ADIs love to use the “when a pause becomes a wait” line, and then apply a number – for example, a pause is under 3 seconds, a wait is over. That’s rubbish. There is no way this can be answered in black or white terms – it depends on the situation.

Oh. And your foot can slip. I had a pupil pass her test recently who stalled during her manoeuvre because it had been raining and her foot slipped off the brake.

It would appear that the ADI who was criticising DVSA in the first place wasn’t actually present on the test or even at the debrief, so I don’t know how they can claim the examiner’s decision was wrong! DT1 – the DVSA’s internal SOP for examiners – makes several references to what constitutes “a fault”:

For the turn in the road:

The object is to see if the candidate can manoeuvre and control the vehicle in a restricted space where proper use of the clutch, accelerator and handbrake, combined with judgement of the position of the vehicle in relation to the kerb, is essential.

The bold text is mine. Use of the handbrake is as important as use of the clutch and footbrake.

For normal stops:

The candidate should be able to pull up parallel to, and within a reasonable distance of, the nearside kerb. The examiner should observe whether the candidate then applies the handbrake and puts the gear into neutral.

The bold text is mine. You have to use the handbrake when you do a normal stop at the side of the kerb.

In automatic vehicles:

The handbrake should be applied for temporary stops, e.g. waiting at a red traffic light, a junction, or in a traffic hold-up, if they are likely to be of a long duration.

Short stops may not require the application of the handbrake.

The handbrake may need to be applied to prevent `creep’.

Note that this is very specific in terms of where the handbrake should be used.

At the time of originally writing this article (April 2014), the DT1 was last updated in October 2013. Prior to that, there was a statement which said:

Full use of the parking brake should be used, to prevent the vehicle rolling backwards or forwards.

This is no longer anywhere to be found, and there is no specific mention of when to and when not to use the handbrake other than that the car should be in neutral with the handbrake on when the engine is started (which is actually confusing, as people will take it to mean that you should go into neutral if you stall).

Will I fail my test if I don’t use the handbrake?

You’re supposed to use the handbrake to help prevent the car from rolling and to make it safe in certain situations. That’s what it is there for.  Although you are unlikely to fail simply for not using it in a given situation, if you do end up rolling backwards or forwards your chances of failing increase significantly. A good example of when to use it is when you stop at a pedestrian crossing to let people cross – if you’re at the front of the queue, and especially if the pedestrians include children, just think what could happen if your foot slipped or someone bumped you from behind. In this situation – and certainly on your test – not using your handbrake is potentially dangerous and the examiner could mark it accordingly.

If you stop facing up a sharp incline, common sense says the handbrake will help you avoid rolling backwards when you move off again. However, if you choose not to use it and remain in control then it won’t be marked. Remember, though, that your right foot will be on the brake, and if you get the timing wrong and lift the clutch too far before you’ve switched your right foot to the gas pedal then you will stall – which means you’re not in control – and then you’ll have to try to stay in control all over again to avoid rolling back as you restart the engine and give it another shot. It would make much more sense just to use the handbrake for what it was designed for in the first place, and all of that would be avoided.

When should I use my handbrake?

Whenever it would help prevent the car from rolling backwards or forwards.

It can also help you avoid stalls. If you have the handbrake on, it means you can set the gas and find the bite ready to move off quickly. If you’re holding the car still using the footbrake, you’re likely to get your timing wrong and lift the clutch too much before you’ve set the gas properly – which increases the likelihood of stalling. You’ll get better at being able to do that with time, but certainly to begin with – and for many people this includes even the point at which they’re at test standard – using the handbrake will help to avoid stalling in many situations.

When is it compulsory to use the hand brake?

It isn’t. You should use the hand brake whenever it would help you prevent the car from rolling backwards or forwards when it isn’t supposed to. In theory, it would be possible to not use the hand brake at all on your test and still not get faulted for it. However, the reality is that there will be times when not using it is just stupid and asking for trouble, and much will depend on the kinds of roads you’re driving on.

If you have to deal with steep hills, the risk of rolling back is going to be very high. With new drivers, a roll back is often accompanied by a stall as they panic and lift the clutch too quickly before they’ve applied gas. Not using the hand brake might not be recorded, but the stall probably will – particularly if it is then followed by more stalls, and causing a hold up for traffic behind, which is common with new drivers (especially if they’re nervous on test).

At night (and you won’t be doing your test at night), the risk of brake dazzle is very real. It is bad practice to just hold the car with the foot brake all the time, and although it would be a very picky examiner who faulted you for it, it IS potentially a fault.

If you don’t use the hand brake when you perhaps ought to a couple of times on your test, it probably won’t be marked unless it leads to another problem. If you don’t use it every time you really should, you’re just asking to be faulted. The simple solution is to aim to use it and not to worry if you forget a few times – as long as it doesn’t result in a worse problem as a result.

An experienced (and good) driver will use the hand brake less than a new (good) driver because they’re likely to be able to hold the bite better. Someone who is not so good with holding the bite – no matter how much experience they have – really ought to use the hand brake more. The reason for this is that they can then set the gas, find the bite, then release the hand brake when they want to move off. The alternative is that they will have to take their foot off the foot brake, set the gas, and then find the bite without rolling back and without stalling. With new drivers, that sort of timing is often a problem.

As I’ve said elsewhere in this article, not using the hand brake when you should is the sign of a lazy, bad, and/or arrogant driver.

Do I apply the handbrake first, or put it in neutral first?

In most cases it doesn’t matter. Common sense says that the safest way is to stop the car with the foot brake, apply the handbrake, then put the car into neutral (you can take your foot off the foot brake then). But no one is going to penalise you for it if you put it in neutral first as long as you don’t roll or lurch.

Just remember that learners (and new drivers) are more likely to lift their feet when they stop, and if they get muddled with their foot timing then they may run into problems, which are made worse if the handbrake isn’t on and the car is still in gear. At least if the handbrake is on, the car won’t go anywhere.

Why should I use the handbrake at junctions?

Primarily, to prevent you from rolling backwards or forwards where this would be undesirable. In addition, sitting with the footbrake on means your brake lights are on, and in modern cars – especially at night – that dazzles people behind you, and is inconsiderate.

If you’re going to be waiting for any length of time beyond a pause, use the handbrake. That’s what it’s there for. Not using it when you ought to is as lazy as it is wrong.

What is the rationale for using the handbrake?

Use it to help prevent the car rolling backwards or forwards when that would be dangerous or inconvenient. Use it at pedestrian crossings – especially if you are the first car in the queue – so that if someone went into the back of you and/or if one of your feet slipped the car would not surge forward.

My friend told me you don’t need to use the handbrake on flat roads

Your friend is wrong. You use the handbrake to secure the car when it needs securing. It can still roll – or be pushed into a roll – on flat roads. In any case, most roads have a camber (a curvature to help water drainage), which means they’re not flat at all.

Imagine sitting – on a flat road – at a zebra crossing with people walking in front of you, just using your footbrake. Then imagine what would happen if someone went into the back of you. Believe me, your first thought isn’t going to be to keep your foot on the brake. Worse still, it might slip on to the gas pedal. If you had the handbrake on then the car would stall.

Trust me: not using your handbrake is the sign of a lazy, arrogant, or dangerous driver.

What if my car has “hill start assist”?

“Hill start assist” (HSA) is feature on some new cars (it’s actually been available on automatics for some time), where if a gradient of more than a certain amount is detected, stopping with the footbrake then releasing it doesn’t result in a roll back. The brakes hold for short time until you find the bite.

Personally, I don’t like it. It doesn’t always kick in (it depends on the gradient as already mentioned), and I don’t agree with taking control – and therefore the requirement for skill – away from the driver (don’t even get me started on self-driving cars!) Learners should be taught how to drive properly, and not how to cut corners. In any case, what happens if I teach them how to drive using HSA, when the first car they buy doesn’t have it?

Most cars allow you to turn HSA off. If you have a car with HSA, use it by all means – but remember that it is merely a tool to help manage many drivers’ inability to find the bite properly. Also remember that it IS NOT intended to be a substitute for using the handbrake in situations where the car needs to be properly secured.

My friend told me that “hill start assist” prevents the car from moving if someone drives into the back of you, so you don’t need the handbrake

It makes me mad when I hear rubbish like this. That is NOT what HSA does – and even if that was, only an even bigger idiot would trust it over a mechanical feature like the handbrake.

HSA is intended to stop the car rolling back when on a gradient above a certain amount. It only works for a short period of time before the car DOES roll back, and I can assure you that it doesn’t kick in every time – you cannot trust it implicitly under any circumstances.

Should I use the handbrake at every set of traffic lights or every junction?

No. Use your common sense. If you’re likely to roll then use it – especially if you’re not confident holding the car on the bite for a few seconds on upward inclines. If you expect to be waiting just a short time then use the footbrake – but don’t try to be clever and argue that a 3 minute wait at temporary lights is “short”. It isn’t. By “short”, we’re talking in seconds, not minutes. And don’t forget the issue of brake dazzle at night.

I’ve found that this question often crops up when pupils who have not been taught to use the handbrake properly switch to a better instructor, who then begins to point out the error to them.

Should I use the handbrake at every pedestrian crossing?

Again, no. Use your own common sense. But above all, be absolutely certain that you are not endangering pedestrians crossing in front of you. If you are first in the queue and people are crossing in front of you then it makes a lot of sense to use it. If you’re further back and no one is moving up behind you, there is less need. If it’s night time, consider brake dazzle on the driver behind.

Should I always use the handbrake at STOP junctions?

The short answer is no. You do not need to use the handbrake at every STOP junction.

However, you MUST actually stop, and it is very common for drivers to think that they HAVE stopped when they haven’t. I often have my pupils argue that they DID stop when I know for a fact that they didn’t – they just creep very slowly, and that is NOT the same as stopping. Even when they do stop I am not always convinced that they did so on purpose, and that had the conditions been slightly different, they might have continued rolling (they sometimes admit to that when I Q&A them over it afterwards). Therefore, you might want to think about using the handbrake at STOP junctions to make sure you really have stopped.

I am not saying that you must/should use the handbrake at every STOP junction. But it might help you if you do. What I tend to do is explain the situation as I have here, then watch what happens on lessons. Most pupils are easily able to consciously bring the car to a full and proper stop. Some aren’t, though, and when I have one of those I just advise them to use the handbrake (yes, I teach these pupils to use the handbrake at STOP junctions).

The examiners have to fail you if you don’t stop at a STOP junction, and no amount of arguing about it will reverse their decision.

I failed my test for not using the handbrake at a STOP junction

I wasn’t there, but I would lay odds that you didn’t actually stop. You just think you did – that’s a very common error. Remember that stop means “STOP”. Slowing right down and creeping – no matter how slowly – is not the same as stopping, and you have to physically stop at STOP junctions. You automatically fail if you don’t.

Also remember that YOU have to stop at the STOP line. It doesn’t matter if you stopped behind the car in front of you who got their first – that is not the same as stopping at a STOP junction. These junctions are usually there when oncoming traffic is obscured by buildings, bends, or hills (or if you’re emerging on to a tram line) – in other words, it is potentially dangerous and you need to take special care. You can’t do that if you are a long way behind the line – you have to be right up to it, stop, then creep forward and look for the opportunity to go.

You are wrong to teach people to use the handbrake at STOP junctions

Actually, I’m just not so anally retentive that I insist on doing everything by the book – and especially so when it’s a book that doesn’t exist!

As I pointed out earlier, I often get pupils who KNOW they should stop and THINK that they have. They even argue the point. But I know full well that they haven’t. I make it absolutely clear that if they do that on the test, they will fail. And that – technically – if they do it in real life, they COULD get a ticket, COULD get a fine, COULD have an accident, and COULD even end up having to pass their test again depending on what points are already on their licences. All of my pupils know exactly what they SHOULD do, and using the handbrake is an ideal solution for those people whose car control/mental processes are not as perfect as the anal retentives would like to think they should be.

There is nothing wrong – nothing at all – with using the handbrake at a STOP junction. It just isn’t mandatory, and people generally don’t need to if they have above average control and awareness. But, like it or not, many people who are genuinely test ready are only at or below average in this respect.

When people simply don’t see the STOP sign, then that is a totally separate problem which can be dealt with.

Why is it a STOP junction? I can see it’s clear

They don’t install STOP junctions just for the sake of it. There aren’t that many compared with normal junctions at the best of times, so there must be a reason. Usually, visibility is restricted at a STOP junction. Around my way, the half dozen or so that I can think of off the top of my head include:

  • there is a hill on the road you’re joining where you can’t see what’s coming up it
  • there is a rise on the road you’re joining and you can’t see what’s coming over it, and the speed limit is 40mph (which equals 60+ for Audis)
  • there is a bend on the road you’re joining so you can’t see what’s coming unless you stop and then creep out slowly
  • the road you are joining is NSL and has bends on it
  • there are buildings right up to the edge of the road and you can’t see until you creep out slightly
  • you’re crossing or joining a tram line
  • the junction has had a lot of accidents in the past
  • and various combinations of all the above

Don’t kid yourself that YOU can see it’s clear. Just stop for the piddling two or three seconds it will take to make sure it’s safe and don’t be a smart aleck. Every boy (or girl) racer in the country thinks they know best – until they become one of the statistics they have been sneering at.

I failed my test for not using the handbrake at a normal junction

Again, I wasn’t there, but something else must have happened to attract the serious fault. Most likely, you rolled backwards or forwards when you shouldn’t have, or perhaps something was happening behind you (a pedestrian walking, for example) whom you could have rolled into.

If you genuinely didn’t roll and nothing else was happening to warrant using the handbrake then you have been treated unfairly. Proving that would be extremely difficult though.

Should I always use the handbrake at roundabouts?

Someone found the blog with the question “if you have to give away [sic] at a roundabout why is it very important to use the handbrake?” The answer is the same as above: use it if you need to, or if you are likely to be waiting for any length of time. You do NOT need to put it on every time. Personally, I hardly ever use the handbrake at roundabouts – but I do sometimes.

When does the handbrake begin to bite?

In a new or recently serviced car the handbrake will probably move about three ratchet clicks before it is fully engaged. So the obvious answer is that it starts to bite as soon as you begin to pull it. However, the cable will stretch over time, and the brakes will wear down, which is why some cars require four, five, or sometimes more clicks to engage the handbrake. In this case, it is fair to say that until the slack has been taken up the brake will not bite as quickly.

I suspect this question was asked because someone is worried about not taking the handbrake fully off. Basically, avoid driving around with the handbrake on even by a single notch.

Why does my car move when the handbrake is on?

The handbrake isn’t designed to hold the car still if you’re trying to drive it forward! The brakes will slip quite easily, and you’ll be able to drive off in most cases, albeit with a little difficulty. If you can hear the brakes creaking (i.e. slipping) when you have the handbrake on if you’re stopped on a hill then it isn’t on enough. If you hear the same noise when you find the bite, then the brake either isn’t on enough or you’re finding too much bite (possibly both).

In many modern cars, you should apply the footbrake firmly and then apply the handbrake. This gives a stronger braking action – it appears that the handbrake clamps the brakes where the foot brake put them to.

If you still have problems then get the handbrake checked out at a garage. It may have a fault.

Is there any danger in moving a short distance with the handbrake on?

Obviously, trying to drive off with the handbrake applied is wrong. It results in greater wear and tear on the brakes, and increases the chances of stalling. The car will not accelerate as quickly as you might need it to – when emerging from a junction or on to roundabouts, for example – and if you tried to change gear then the car would slow down more and the risk of stalling would increase again. Leaving the handbrake on can easily be a serious fault on your test.

Is leaving your handbrake on a serious fault on test?

Assume yes. Even if you were to get lucky and get away with it, it is still a pretty serious problem. In most cases you will get a serious fault.

Is it wrong to use the handbrake and footbrake at the same time?

The footbrake is used to slow down or stop. The handbrake is the anchor that holds the car still when you are already stopped. Using the footbrake while you’re stationary and the handbrake is applied is just pointless, so in that sense yes, it is wrong. However, it isn’t a serious problem in this respect.

Remember, though, that your brake lights come on when you use the footbrake, but they don’t with the handbrake. Brake lights therefore send a message to other road users. If you have the footbrake on unnecessarily then you are sending the wrong message. Also remember that modern brake lights can be very bright, and especially at night that can dazzle other road users.

Conversely, using the handbrake to stop the car means no brake lights come on, and people following you might not realise you are braking. Applying the handbrake while you are still moving – even if you are using the footbrake to slow down – is dangerous because it can lock the wheels and cause you to skid. Doing it is likely to attract a serious fault on test.

I put my handbrake on but my car still rolls back/forward

You either haven’t applied it tightly enough or there is something wrong with it.

I’ve found that girls tend to have the biggest problem applying the handbrake. One trick is to make sure you have applied the footbrake firmly before applying the handbrake – that way the handbrake clamps the brakes a little more tightly. Also, don’t push the button in – let the ratchet click. That way the handbrake can settle maybe one or two clicks higher than it does when the button is pressed. Check you car’s handbook, because you’ll find some/many manufacturers these days advise not pushing the button when applying the handbrake, and using the footbrake the way I described above.

The only drawback is that once the handbrake is on tightly enough, people with weak arms sometimes can’t get it off again! I remember recently advising a female who had problems like this in my car – which doesn’t have a fault at all – to try a few exercises using dumb bells at the gym, which she attended regularly. It is vital that the handbrake can be applied and removed effectively.

If that fails, get someone else to have a try and if it appears that the car is at fault, get it looked at as soon as possible. It is dangerous if the handbrake isn’t working properly.

Can you be too weak to apply the handbrake?

I have had a few pupils who seem to have problems applying and releasing the handbrake. In more than one instance I have advised them to exercise with dumb bells at the gym. I’ve never had anyone who cannot apply/release the handbrake at all, though.

One way of looking at it is that if you can’t apply the handbrake in a car, then you shouldn’t be driving it. If you are so weak you physically can’t apply it, then you should have a modified vehicle (or one with an electronic brake) where you can.

How do I stop the car rolling in traffic if my handbrake isn’t working?

I can’t believe that someone found the blog with that search term! Your car ought not to be on the road if the handbrake is broken, and you probably shouldn’t if you have to ask questions like this! Get it fixed.

If your handbrake goes, can you keep it in reverse?

Yep, some jackass found the blog on that search term! Get it fixed, idiot. It’s illegal to drive the car if the handbrake is broken. Technically, your insurance is only valid if your car is roadworthy, so you’re effectively driving uninsured.

On the other hand, since you obviously are this stupid, reverse gear will help stop it rolling forward pointing down a hill, and 1st gear will help stop it rolling backwards pointing up. Make sure you angle your wheels so the kerb – which even as an inanimate piece of concrete is more intelligent than you are – will chock the wheels if the car moves. The key word there is ‘help’ – neither gear will guarantee that it won’t move on a steep slope any more than chocking the wheels will guarantee safety. So if it did still roll away and kill someone, then as well as no insurance you’d have that one against you, too.

Do your brake lights some on with the handbrake?

No. That’s one good reason why you should stop the car using the foot brake – so people behind know what’s happening.

If you’re stopped, brake light dazzle isn’t going to cause an accident, is it?

Driving at night and having to put up with dazzle can lead to tiredness or loss of concentration or awareness. Having bright lights shone unnecessarily in your face in uncomfortable at best, but can potentially lead to more dangerous situations. Anyone who says that brake lights don’t dazzle is wrong. They DO dazzle – especially on modern cars with high-intensity bulbs and LEDs.

Anyone teaching pupils to avoid using the handbrake – and thus, not to think of those around them – really shouldn’t be instructing. Brake light dazzle IS a significant issue, and pupils need to be made aware of it. Holding the car on the footbrake for too long, and especially at night, IS a sign of a bad or inconsiderate driver, quite possibly one taught by a bad or incompetent ADI.

Why shouldn’t I use the ratchet when I apply the handbrake?

You should look in your car’s manual – in most cases, in modern vehicles, the advice IS to use the ratchet. Applying the handbrake with the button pressed is an old-fashioned approach. I’ve written more about it here.

I hate it when I pick up pupils who have been told to use the handbrake every time they stop.

Well, good for you. However, you ought to allow for the fact that most new drivers find it difficult to assess when to do something that requires judgement or common sense, and often fall into the habit of either always doing it, or always not doing it as a result. They have often developed that habit themselves as a “just in case” strategy (they do it with signalling to pull over or move off, amongst other things). In every likelihood, they haven’t been told to “do it every time” at all. Mine sometimes try to do it, in spite of me never having taught them to.

TES makes it clear that you should use the handbrake where it would help you prevent the car from rolling. Using it unnecessarily doesn’t attract a driver fault unless it leads to holding others up or taking too long over something. However, not using it when you should can easily be identified as a fault in its own right.

Share