Foot Brake vs Handbrake

If you’ve ever been behind the wheel of a car you’ll notice that there are two separate braking systems: the foot brake and the handbrake. While the foot brake needs to be used any time you want to stop the car, the handbrake is only suitable for certain scenarios. So how do you know which situations require the use of both?

Well, some of it is down to personal preference, but a lot of the time you need to consider both safety and control factors. If you still feel like you’re in the dark on this one, we’re here to help. Keep reading to find out when the foot brake and handbrake should be used!

The foot brake

The foot brake sits in the middle between the clutch pedal (on the left) and the accelerator pedal (on the right). It is the most powerful of the car’s braking systems and should be used any time you want to bring your vehicle to a stop.

It is used a lot more frequently than the handbrake. Not only is this because it is required every time you brake, but because it also comes in handy when you need to slow down. You’ll find that you need to apply slight pressure to this pedal throughout a journey—even when you don’t intend to come to a complete halt.

The handbrake

DRIVE Driving School interior car

The handbrake is not as powerful as the foot brake and, if used on its own, would not bring a car to a stop very quickly. In fact, the handbrake only controls the rear wheels of a car. At the very least, the handbrake should be released when you are starting the car and applied once again when you are parking up.

It can actually be damaging to the car to apply the handbrake when the vehicle is still in motion. As a result, it is imperative that the handbrake is never used without the foot brake having been applied first.

In older vehicles, the handbrake is often situated between the front two seats and looks like a lever with a button at the end. It is increasingly common, however, for newer vehicles to simply have a handbrake button.

Waiting in traffic

DRIVE Driving school red traffic light

One of the most common driving scenarios that requires the use of the handbrake is when you are queuing in traffic. Any time the car is stationary for a noticeable amount of time, using the handbrake can give both your foot and the brake pedal a well-earned rest.

Next time you’re stuck behind other cars or waiting for a red light to change, count to 5 seconds. If it doesn’t look like anything is going to start moving once the time is up, apply the handbrake. This means that, once you’re ready to set off again, your feet will be free to work the clutch and accelerator pedals.

On the other hand, if you are only pausing for a brief moment (for instance, if it looks like the lights are about to turn green) applying the handbrake really isn’t necessary. If you reach for it every time the car stops, you risk delaying the progress of both yourself and other drivers.


The handbrake is really useful as an added safety device for your vehicle. Having two types of brake means that it is not necessarily disastrous if one fails (though it really isn’t good!). While it is incredibly rare these days for the main braking system of a car to malfunction, if the worst happens, you can at least try to use the handbrake to bring the car to an eventual halt.

Please note, however, that it still requires a considerable amount of skill to stop a car using only the handbrake. Applying this feature while the car is still moving should only be attempted in the event of an emergency.

Protecting other drivers

One thing you need to consider about the handbrake is that when it is applied, and you have released the foot brake, your brake lights are no longer illuminated. This is useful when driving at night, because your brake lights may dazzle any drivers behind you. Out of courtesy, therefore, people are often more likely to switch to using the handbrake when waiting at traffic lights during the hours of darkness.

On the other hand, the fact that your brake lights are no longer on means that it is not clear to other drivers when you plan to start moving again. You should also consider this when you’re stuck behind vehicles yourself! Be ready to set off and make sure you use devices like the indicators to make it clear to fellow road users what you plan to do next.

Driving test tip

For safety reasons, the examiner will expect you to apply the handbrake after you have completed an emergency stop and in the event of the car stalling. In both scenarios, this should be done as soon as you have applied the footbrake and the car is stationary.


The handbrake provides drivers with a useful way to gain more control over a vehicle. Once the brake pedal has been fully depressed, the handbrake applied and the brake pedal released, drivers have the opportunity to regroup and get the car going again in a controlled manner.

Hill starts

The handbrake is a particular lifesaver when it comes to tackling hill starts. Once it is applied, the car will be prevented from rolling forwards or backwards. Then again, if you are facing downhill on a particularly steep road, it’s a good idea to keep your foot on the brake pedal as well!

If you are driving uphill, having the handbrake on while the car is stationary frees up your feet to work the clutch and accelerator pedals. This is important, as you need to use both at the same time to power you forward once the car is able to set off again.


DRIVE Driving School parking

The handbrake should always be applied when you park the car to ensure that it remains stationary. This isn’t necessarily foolproof, though. In fact, handbrakes are far more likely to fail than the foot brake.

To ensure your car remains stationary, you have the option of leaving it in gear when it is parked. If the car is facing uphill, leave it in first gear. If the car is facing downhill, leave it in reverse. This should prevent your vehicle from rolling in the event that the handbrake fails.

Driving test tip

The examiner wants to see that you have control over the vehicle and appropriate use of the handbrake can help with this. They will expect you to apply the handbrake every time you pull up at the side of the road. If you are struggling to complete a manoeuvre, integrating the handbrake can also give you a chance to catch your breath and gain more control over the foot pedals.

Using the handbrake and foot brake together

As you can see, there are a range of scenarios that require you to use the handbrake in conjunction with the foot brake. Whether it’s for safety, control, or to simply give your foot a rest, make sure you understand how to integrate this nifty device into your everyday driving!