The parking brake is one of the most important parts of the car so knowing the symptoms of a bad parking brake is very important.
Not noticing these symptoms may put you in a tight spot. Remember that the parking brake also functions as an auxiliary in case the main brake system stops working for some reason.
Basically, if it doesn’t work you’re out of insurance when it comes to the brakes.
So, this article will present a couple of tell-tale signs that you should check the parking brake.
Also, this article applies mainly to the classic system of a parking brake, not the modern electric one although these symptoms may appear in both systems.
If you want to learn more about how parking brakes work, click here for a great article from Wikipedia.
1. NO RESISTANCE WHEN PULLING THE PARKING BRAKE HANDLE
Before we start, we would like to recommend our related article to this topic, about brake problems in general.
Click here to read it.
Besides this, you have an article showing some tips on how to properly use the parking brake. To read it click here.
When you pull the handle of the parking brake, all you hear is the tension mechanism clicking but you don’t feel any resistance.
As if the handle isn’t connected at all to the rest of the system.
An important thing to mention at this point is that the most obvious way to recognize the symptoms of a bad parking brake is by paying attention to how the handle behaves.
This is probably the first place you’ll notice a problem since it’s most used and at hand.
The proper way the parking brake works is that when you pull the handle it puts up a fair amount of resistance and as you pull it higher, to the end, the resistance gets stronger.
But when there’s weak or no resistance at all when pulling, there’s something wrong for sure.
The most common reason for this is a broken cable or cables that connect the handle to the brake calipers or brake cylinders, depending on what system you have.
By the way, a broken or stuck cable is probably the most common reason for parking brake problems in general
2. STUCK PARKING BRAKE HANDLE
Opposite to the previous symptom of a bad parking brake is a stuck handle.
You pull the handle and you can sense the cable tensioning a bit, but it seems stuck or will budge just a little bit.
Again, the most common reason for this problem is the brake cable. A stuck brake cable to be more precise.
It usually happens, because, over time, the metal wire inside the cable may get rusty and filthy and get stuck.
A rare reason but nevertheless worth considering is a faulty tensioning mechanism, faulty brake caliper, or faulty brake cylinder in case you have brake drums.
One more reason (if this happens during winter) might be water getting into the brake cable and freezing it.
3. THE REAR WHEELS DO NOT HOLD WHEN THE PARKING BRAKE IS ENGAGED
The parking brake is fully engaged but, when you try to drive, the car can still move. The resistance is weak or non-existent.
When the parking brake works properly, when you engage it, the rear wheels should be completely blocked. You shouldn’t be able to move the car at all.
If the car moves slowly and there is some resistance the parking brake still works to some extent.
But if there’s no resistance, then it’s failed completely and you should raise the alarm so to say.
The reasons for this symptom are various: it can be stuck calipers, poorly adjusted brake shoes, worn-out brake shoes or brake pads, a bad braking cable, poorly adjusted braking cable, etc.
4. STUCK REAR WHEELS
When driving, the car feels sluggish, there is a lack of acceleration and after some time you sense the smell of burning brakes. Also, you may notice a higher fuel consumption.
Additionally (if you happen to notice) one of the rear wheel rims may get hot.
This is one of the symptoms of a bad parking brake that is pretty hard to spot immediately as there are no obvious signs of problems.
Once you do notice, best raise the car and spin the wheel while the parking brake is lowered. If the wheel spins slowly and you notice serious resistance you definitely have a problem.
The usual reason is a stuck or ill-adjusted brake shoe or brake pad blocking one of the wheels.
It’s fair to say that this problem appears more frequently with brake drums (namely the brake cylinders inside the drum).
Mostly due to material fatigue, the brake cylinder may malfunction blocking the brake shoe against the drum.
Other reasons may be a stuck brake cable, stuck calipers, poorly adjusted brake shoes, and else.
5. BRAKE FLUID LEAKS
- The brake pedal feels squishy and the brakes don’t „bite“ as they’re supposed to.
- There is a constant loss of brake fluid (despite the fact you’ve added some).
- The brake warning light on the dashboard comes up from time to time and in the end, it’s lit up always.
- The parking brake holds to some extent but is getting weaker.
Just like with the previous symptom, this one is mostly present with drums and brake shoes. Systems with brake calipers and brake pads are much more resilient to this.
Once you notice this symptom, the best way to check is to take a look at the inner side of the rear wheels, at the brake drums (or calipers)and rims, and see if there are any signs of leaks.
Usually, the leak will be barely noticeable. It looks like a smear or a thin trace going from the drum to the rim.
This is caused, in the majority of cases, by a leaking or completely malfunctioned brake cylinder within the drum (in the case of a drum and shoe system).
If you have brake calipers on the rear wheels, it might be a faulty seal, although this is really rare.
Most importantly on this part, if you notice these leaks, take action as soon as possible.
The brake system, at this point, is starting to lose brake fluid and the leak can easily progress to a smaller spill.
This then results in a critical loss of brake pressure which eventually leads to a complete or nearly complete loss of brakes.
So, there you have some of the most common symptoms of a bad parking brake.
But perhaps the most important thing to remember: react and repair on time!
The moment you notice any of these symptoms, make an inspection or take your car to a mechanic.
Yes, some of these problems are not that critical, but better solve the problem at the beginning. Later it’s not only more complicated but also very dangerous regarding road safety.
Again, the most obvious sign of a problem is how the parking brake handle behaves.
Also, checking the brake fluid level periodically will help notice the problem on time.
In the end: if you have the possibility and while you’re at it, check the other parts of the brake system. It shouldn’t take much time but it’s very useful.
Written by: Sibin Spasojevic
Former car technician, life-long car and DIY enthusiast, author for Despairrepair.com