A car's parking brake. Some cars have a parking brake, while others have an emergency brake. Here's how the two are related to one another.

Parking Brake vs. Emergency Brake: What’s the Difference?

What’s the difference between the parking brake vs. emergency brake? You’ve likely heard the terms used interchangeably because they both stop the wheels from turning, but there’s a reason for the different terminology.
Parking Brake
Both are auxiliary brake systems that are separate from the hydraulic system that engages when you press the brake pedal. Let’s take a closer look at the parking brake vs. emergency brake so you fully understand how these systems are designed to operate and why they have different names.

What Makes Them Similar?

Whether it’s called an emergency brake or parking brake, it operates the same way. These systems use calipers that clamp onto the rear wheel rotors to keep them from moving. While the brake pedal lets you gradually apply pressure to slowly and smoothly bring your car to a stop, auxiliary brake systems are more aggressive. There’s no way to modulate the pressure of the calipers on the rotors, so it’s more of an all-or-nothing proposition.

The Parking Brake

A parking brake is designed to keep your car from rolling when it’s parked. Cars with a manual transmission have a parking brake that needs to be engaged every time you park the car, otherwise, it will roll away. This is because you can’t put a manual into park like you can with an automatic. When you stop the car and turn off the ignition, it’s still in neutral. The parking brake makes sure your car doesn’t go anywhere.

There are also parking brakes on vehicles with automatic transmissions. Although you can put a car with an automatic transmission into park so it shouldn’t roll away, setting the parking brake gives you an extra measure of security. It’s an especially good idea to engage the parking brake if you’re parked on a steep hill.

The Emergency Brake

So, what makes an emergency brake different? It’s all in the name. Some automakers call it a parking brake, while some call it an emergency brake. While calling the auxiliary brake system a parking brake implies you use it every time you park your car, the name emergency brake implies it’s only for emergencies. The reality is that whether it’s called a parking brake or an emergency brake, it does the same thing and can be used in multiple scenarios.

When to Use Them

You can engage the auxiliary brake system when you park the car, which makes the name parking brake make sense. You can also engage the auxiliary brake system if your regular hydraulic brakes malfunction, which makes the name emergency brake make sense. Two names for one system designed to work in more than one situation.

Regardless of the name, the auxiliary brake system makes sure your car stays put when you stop and can help slow you down and stop your car if your regular brakes fail.

Check out all the brake system parts available on NAPA Online or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on how an emergency brake differs from a parking brake, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.

Photos courtesy of Nicole Wakelin.

about author

Nicole Wakelin

Nicole Wakelin covers the automotive industry as a freelance journalist for a variety of outlets. Her work includes news pieces, podcasts, radio, written reviews, and video reviews. She can be found in The Boston Globe, CarGurus, BestRide, US News and World Report, and AAA along with lifestyle blogs like Be Car Chic, The Other PTA, and She Buys Cars. She is active on social media with a large following on both Twitter and Instagram and currently serves as Vice President of the New England Motor Press Association.

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