How to use Car Brakes and Braking Techniques

As a learner driver, you’re likely to be a little heavy footed on the brake pedal initially. This is perfectly normal and takes practice to become proficient.

There’s a little more to braking than simply pressing the pedal. there are various braking techniques, but just as important as learning technique, the ability to predict situations ahead is essential to a lifetime of safe driving.

Predicting the road ahead is called anticipation and planning and a good driver who effectively uses anticipation and planning whilst driving, often uses the brakes less frequently and rarely uses the brakes heavily, except under an emergency situation.

Braking ability

Almost anyone can stomp on the brake pedal, but doing this in every day driving will soon cause an accident.

Your level of braking ability is defined by two main skill sets:

  • Braking technique – how you apply pressure to the brake pedal.
  • Observation, anticipation and planning – what you see around you, what you anticipate is going to happen and planning for that situation before you get there.

If you’re just starting out learning to drive, you won’t be able to do much in terms of observation, anticipation and planning. In fact, you don’t want to, your driving instructor will do that on your behalf. Instead, you’ll want to initially concentrate on getting the feel of the cars brakes and gaining braking technique skills. In order to that, it’s beneficial to gain a basic understanding on how car brakes work.

How car brakes work
How car brakes work

How car brakes work

Car brakes principally work the same as the brakes on a push bike. Both push bike and car brakes use pads and both have discs, although for most push bikes, the ‘disc’ is actually the rim of the wheels.

Looking at the diagram of the rotating wheel, we can see the brake pads are not in contact with the brake disc. Where the brake pedal has been pressed on the stationary wheel diagram, the pads have been pushed by hydraulics against the brake disc.

Just like on a push bike, the friction against the pads and discs (or wheel rims) turns all that kinetic energy (forward motion of the car) into heat. The same principle applies however, it’s the friction that stops the car or push bike. The reason why we’re comparing it to a push bike is because most of us have used one before we learn to drive. Not only is the way in which they mechanically stop in principle that same, the way in which you stop is also the same.

Braking techniques

When you want to brake on a push bike, it’s unlikely you’ll just squeeze the brake level as hard as possible else you’ll skid or even go over the handle bars. You brake gently, alternating the pressure until you gently come to a stop. The same applies to the brakes and brake pedal on the car. It’s called progressive braking.

Progressive braking

What is progressive braking?
Progressive braking is essentially variable braking instead of constant braking. It should start slight, increase with pressure and finish light. Progressive braking is a safe driving technique, which

  • allows for other drivers to react to your actions
  • prevents locked wheels
  • prevents the car from skidding
  • reduces wear on the brakes, tyres, suspension and other mechanical parts
  • saves on fuel
  • is more comfortable for your passengers

When you have mastered progressive braking, you will have stopped where you intended on stopping, the entire braking process will be smooth and when you come to a stop, it there will be no aggressive jolt at the end. Progressive braking doesn’t necessarily mean slowly, progressive braking is even carried out in an emergency stop situation. The point is that it’s done progressively and not to simply stomp on the brakes.

To achieve this, start on a flat or slightly downhill gradient, and on a quiet, straight road. Don’t set yourself a target of where you need to stop initially, just get the feel of the brakes. To understand and master the progressive braking technique, you’ll need to do it in stages.

Before braking however, ensure you are covering the brake with your right foot and the covering the clutch with your left foot. This simply means placing your foot onto the pedals in preparation of stopping, but not pressing them. See cover the brake for further information. These stages of progressive braking are:

  1. Feel – as the braking process starts, gently press the pedal to take up any slack between the discs and the brake pads. You will know when this has been achieved as you will feel the brakes slowing the car.
  2. Firm – now still gently, but more firmly apply pressure the to brake pedal. Keep applying pressure and decelerating until you reach the required speed. This middle phase should set the appropriate speed in which you need to negotiate the hazard, this could be a bend in the road for example or stopping for a red light. In this case, we are simply stopping, so gently but firmly apply pressure until between 5 to 10 mph is reached.
  3. Feather – the final stage is to gently begin to ease off the brake pedal so as you will stop in a smooth, controlled action. Gently feather more pressure on the pedal if you are not stopping soon enough. The clutch should be depressed at the feathering stage, around 3 to 4 metres before you intend on stopping to avoid stalling the car. See how to stop stalling the car for further information.
Progressive braking explained
Progressive braking explained

Try this progressive braking technique enough times until you get a good feel of the brakes and the pedal and until you come to a smooth controlled stop.

The diagram on the right may help to understand what you’re trying to achieve with progressive braking when compared to constant braking. The key is in the middle ‘firm’ part of the braking to gauge the correct amount of deceleration required to achieve a smooth stop at the end, unlike harsh or constant braking which results in an abrupt stop.

Once you’ve reached a reasonable level of proficiency, set yourself a specific target to stop at. This could be behind a parked car or at a junction for example. It’s always beneficial to use reference points to help learner drivers to understand where to stop as it can be difficult to relate where the front of the car is from the driver’s seat.

An example of a suitable reference point for junctions is choose a marker on the car which lines up with junction lines on the road. A clearer explanation can be obtained from the junction lines tutorial. Learner drivers often find themselves stopping too early before a junction. Reference points help to resolve this issue as it provides a visual aid in knowing where to stop.

Braking skills put to the test

An all-round proficient driver will have many skills, most of which complement each other. After all, being proficient at progressive braking isn’t of much use unless you can read the road. Reading the road ahead is your ability to anticipate something happening, so for example down the road you see traffic lights that have been on green for some time. You would anticipate them changing before you reach them. Or a pedestrian crossing on green, but has people waiting, you would anticipate the lights changing before or just as you get there.

After anticipating, planning is required. Is your plan to get there and slam on the brakes if the lights change, or ease off the accelerator, cover the brake and clutch and prepare to either continue through the lights, or to use progressive braking at a certain distance from the lights if they change? Anticipation and planning is one of the more challenging skills to learn. It takes time and practice but is essential to enable all other driving skills to merge. It’s also fairly important if you want to pass the driving test too!

Do I need to learn braking techniques?

All modern cars come fitted with some form of anti-lock brakes as it’s a legal requirement for car manufacturers within the EU to do so. Anti-lock brakes don’t enable you to stop sooner however. They are designed to enable a driver to steer whilst braking in an emergency situation, and therefor to potentially avoid a crash.

Even with the advancements of car brake technology, it’s still essential to learn safe braking techniques to avoid unnecessarily dangerous situations. Good braking techniques are however only useful if the drivers observational and anticipation skills are sufficient. Bad driving habits such as tailgating will also have a detrimental effect on not only other road users, but any braking skills that may have been learnt as it renders them useless.

Car braking tips

Be cautious when braking on a bend in the road. Moving objects naturally tend to want to travel in a straight line (inertia). It requires an unbalanced force to make a moving object change direction (centripetal force). Braking whilst on a bend puts the car off-balance.

The weight of the car shifts to the front whilst braking, which is particularly challenging for front wheel drive cars as it can become difficult to steer and brake simultaneously. As the weight transfers to the front of the vehicle due to braking, the rear tyres now have less grip to the road, due also to cornering, the weight and grip available to the rear tyres is distributed unevenly. This makes the rear of the car want to swing out and overtake the front of the car. This becomes more likely the harder you brake.

Braking and steering is also rather unkind to your front tyres. Tyres only really like to do one thing, go round and in a straight line. Turning whilst steering now puts extra load onto the front tyres, as the car (inertia) is trying to go in a straight line, add braking to that and you really start asking a lot for your front tyres to have to deal with.

Not only does braking on a corner make a car much more unstable, it will wear your front tyres out much quicker – and they certainly aren’t cheap to replace. Instead anticipate the bend ahead, decelerate and use progressive braking to reach the appropriate speed for the bend before you enter it. This becomes particularly important on wet or icy roads.

Think ahead

Always consider:

  • weather conditions
  • your speed of travel
  • condition of road. Is it wet, muddy, icy, snow
  • the road camber can influence how your car reacts to braking
  • whether the road has a gradient
  • visibility
  • condition of your vehicle, tyres and tyre pressures
  • the reaction time it takes to respond to an incident

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8 thoughts on “How to use Car Brakes and Braking Techniques”

  1. Hi,
    A question about braking in areas with “speed Humps “.
    Is it permissible on our test to gently break approaching a hump to further reduce the speed ( and the inevitable bump).
    I’m driving Automatic so if there’s any difference do please clarify .
    Many thanks

  2. Hi Mo,
    Yes, it’s not only acceptable, it’s what the examiner will expect. When approaching a hump in the road, first let the car slow down by engine braking (this means to simply take your foot off the accelerator) then just before the hump, gently apply the brakes. How much you need to slow down depends on how steep the humps are. There’s no difference being in an automatic other than you’ll not need to change down gear.

  3. Thank you very much for your prompt response.
    I have heard previously braking isn’t good for the environment and shouldn’t be used too often etc?
    Also every time I stop at a traffic light or for significant time , am I expected to go into neutral and apply hand brake.?
    Thank you.

  4. Brake dust, tyre particles, fuel emissions, none of them are very good for the environment. It’s best to use engine braking to let the car slow down initially, then apply the brakes. If you stop at traffic lights and it’s just turned red, then you can apply the handbrake if you’re in a queue of traffic. I shouldn’t worry about going into neutral unless you think you’ll be stationary for quite a while. There’s no particular rule around this, so I shouldn’t worry about it too much.

  5. Francesca


    Is it acceptable to do constant braking rather than progressive braking when doing an emergency stop in a test?

    Thank you

  6. Hi Francesca,
    Yes, you have it exactly right. Press the brake pedal constantly and firmly in the emergency stop. In modern cars you have little to worry in terms of the wheels locking up as they all have anti-lock brakes now.

  7. Jody Mitchell

    Hi. I’m relation to your earlier comment of speed humps. I maintain a slightly slower speed which allows me to safely and comfortably go through the speed humps without the news for braking. Is this also acceptable?

  8. Hi Jody,
    Yes that’s fine. Try to judge how harsh the speed bump is before going over it so that it doesn’t impact you and your car too much.

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