Can You Drive With a Snapped Parking Brake Cable?

Because of how serious it is when a parking brake cable snaps, you’d think there’d be some fail-safe device to stop the car from rolling away. Sadly, this is not the case.

The good thing is that most modern cars have done away with handbrake cables. Instead, they have electronic calipers that lock the brakes on with the push of a button.

But that doesn’t help now when you have a car with a snapped parking brake cable (also known as handbrake cable) and need to drive it. To put you out of your misery, you can still drive; the issue comes when you need to stop and get out of the car. I’ve got some tips and more details on that below.

What Causes a Parking Cable to Snap?

These are the common reasons I find a parking brake cable has snapped:

  • Age – As you expect with any component, usual wear and tear occur with age. This is typically the most common cause of cable failure. Specific vehicles have design faults, and the parking brake cables commonly snap after a few years.
  • Contamination  – Handbrake cables are open to the elements, so they can become contaminated with corrosive fluids spilled on the roads. Parts of the cables are coated in plastic, but some parts are just naked metal wound cabling, which, depending on the contaminants, encourages corrosion to set in and the cable to break.
  • Overstretched cable – An overstretched cable can happen for a couple of reasons; one is the cable has been over-adjusted, and you have to really yank hard on the lever to get the parking to apply. This stretches the cable and makes it weak. The other is constantly pulling the brake lever far too high, again stretching the cable. Eventually, it will get so weak that it snaps without much warning.
  • Incorrect installation – This isn’t something you’ll necessarily know about until 2 or 3 years down the line. But on certain vehicles, it is possible to install the rear brake calipers with a twisted cable and brake hose. Usually, this happens when the pads are changed. The parking brake then gets adjusted with its twisted cable, which will cause it to fail quickly. Also, if you’ve recently replaced the brake cable, it can be installed incorrectly. The cable needs to be seated in its clips correctly; if it isn’t, it will fail. Lastly, was it the wrong one for the vehicle, making it an inch too short? It will fit but will stretch and snap.
  • Physical damage – As the cable is open to the elements underneath the vehicle, it is also susceptible to damage. The parking cable is in metal clips that can get damaged, causing the cable to hang loose and get caught if driving over debris, forcing it to break.

Can You Drive With a Snapped Parking Brake Cable?

You can drive a car with a snapped parking brake cable. It will not affect how the car handles, accelerates or reacts under braking.

The issue comes when you finally stop the car and need to get out or if you are used to using the parking brake at a red light. It might take some getting used to having the foot brake constantly applied instead of using the parking brake when stopped in traffic. But it should be fine for most drivers.

This is not a long-term solution. You can continue driving with a snapped parking brake cable, but it’s essential to replace the parking brake cables as soon as possible.

How to park the car with a broken parking brake cable

Parking should be fine if you drive an automatic transmission vehicle. Many drivers typically leave their cars in park and rarely use the parking brake anyway.

If you drive a manual transmission or electronic parking brake vehicle, leave the can gear when you switch off the engine; this will stop the car from rolling away. But this is only good if you park on a nice flat level surface; parking on a hill and leaving the car in gear is not a good idea.

You’ll need to get the car into a safe place to repair it, and you’ll need to get out of the car, so in this instance, leave it in gear. If you want to be extra safe, putting some bricks or wheel chocks behind the wheels as an additional parking brake is also a good idea.

Note, though, that someone could quite quickly move your car if they wanted to by removing the chocks, getting under the car, and pulling the gear linkage so it’s back in neutral.

can you drive with a snapped parking brake cable

Fixing a Broken Handbrake Cable

Handbrake cables must be replaced when they fail, even if they haven’t quite snapped yet. Replacing the cables is straightforward but time-consuming, as you’ll need to remove the trim to get to the adjuster on the parking brake lever to readjust it. Below is precisely how I replace parking brake cables on manually operated parking brakes with calipers at the rear:

  1. The ideal scenario is to have the car on the ramp because you will need to get right under the vehicle to the middle of the car to change handbrake cables. Doing it on the floor with trolley jacks is possible, but ensure you secure the car on axle stands before getting underneath it.
  2. You must ensure the parking brake is fully off and de-adjusted to save yourself any problems before removing the cables. To find the adjuster, you may need to remove the center console, usually located on the side of the parking brake lever. 
  3. Remove the old broken cables starting at the brake caliper. You’ll need to check the mechanism’s operation on the caliper; usually, with a wrench, you can make sure it moves back and forth freely.
  4. You may need to remove the exhaust heat shield to find where the two handbrake cables (rear right and rear left) meet; if you’re lucky, you won’t have to do this. It will just be a case of unhooking both cables. 
  5. Replace the cables starting at the front first, and make sure they are secure in clips or eyelets they must pass through before they are attached to the brake caliper.
  6. The cable will have an eyelet that will hook onto the brake caliper mechanism, the same one you removed it from.
  7. Repeat the process for both sides.
  8. Now the cables are installed, you must refit the brake caliper and wheels if you removed them. Now adjust the parking brake until you get between 3 and 5 clicks. If you slowly pull the lever up without pressing the release button, you should hear the parking brake click on the ratchet mechanism.
  9. With the car still in the air, check the applied braking effort when you pull the lever even across both rear wheels by just trying to turn the wheels by hand.
  10. Once you are happy the handbrake is fully adjusted, before resecuring any removed trim, it is always wise to put the car back on the floor and test the parking brake. If you are not satisfied it’s holding well enough, readjust the parking brake before refitting any removed trim.

If your car has a drum brake arrangement, have a mechanic replace the parking brake cable for you. Drum brake shoes are tricky to replace without knowing exactly how they work and the right tools. If replaced and adjusted incorrectly, you can cause all sorts of problems, like leaking wheel cylinders, etc., 

Should You Replace Both Rear Parking Brake Cables at the Same Time?

Always replace both parking brake cables at the same time. The thing to remember is cables stretch with age. If you replaced just one cable, you would probably have weak parking afterward.

One cable will be nice and tight holding the car because it is new; the other old, weak cable will not. This increases the chances of the new cable failing quickly.

The other thing that can happen is for both wheels to hold the car, you have to over-adjust the handbrake cables so one side of the brakes is binding, which will cause the brakes to overheat and the pads to wear down very quickly.

What to Do if You Have an Electronic Parking Brake

Many modern cars now have an electronic parking brake, operated by pressing a button on the dashboard. Unlike traditional parking brakes that use cables, this system uses an electric motor on the back of the caliper. 

If you experience an issue with your parking brake, such as a snapped parking cable, repairing the electronic parking brake requires a different approach as it doesn’t utilize cables. Since it is an electrical system, you need to connect the car to a diagnostic tool. This tool can deactivate the parking brake through the ECU, allowing you to carry out the repair. 

Once the repair is complete, the system must be recalibrated using the diagnostic tool.

Frequently Asked Questions 

How Can You Tell If The Parking Brake Cable Has Snapped?

The most obvious one is that if you pull the parking brake lever, it will have no resistance, and the car may roll away. Sometimes, the lever may feel as if it is still engaging, but the car will continue to roll, indicating that the cable is broken. 

How Hard Is It To Snap A Handbrake Cable?

Handbrake cables can snap due to age, contamination, overstretched cable, incorrect installation, or physical damage. While it’s not easy to snap a handbrake cable, it’s still possible for various reasons.

Do All Cars Have 2 Parking Brake Cables?

Most cars have two parking brake cables, one for each rear wheel. However, some models may have only one cable that splits into two at the rear wheels. Generally, two cables provide more even and effective braking for the rear wheels, which is essential for parking on inclines or holding the car in place.

Final Words

You can drive with a snapped parking brake cable; you must be careful to ensure the car is in gear before turning the car off and getting out of the vehicle. That is not a foolproof method of parking a car without a handbrake, so if you have some wheel chocks, using them means you can safely park the vehicle without it rolling away.

This isn’t a long-term fix, so you should replace the cables as soon as possible, which can be done at home with a bit of knowledge of how the brakes work and a good selection of tools. As always, you must be 100% sure about what you’re doing; please book your car with a mechanic to repair broken brake cables if you need to.

My name is Tom although my friends call me Tommy. Messing around with cars and bikes has always been a hobby of mine even from a young age. So I made it my day job 17 years ago. I am a fully qualified mechanic as you would expect. I've worked in all different areas of the motor trade, valeting, panel beating, engine repairs, I'm sure you get the idea. I enjoy sharing my wealth of knowledge and experience with others, which is the reason I spend a lot of time here writing for this website.

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