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 they’ve done away with handbrake cables. Instead, they have electric 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/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 handbrake cable to snap?
- Age – As you expect with any component, usual wear and tear occurs with age. This is typically the most common cause of handbrake 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 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 is just stretching the cable and making it weak. The other is constantly pulling the handbrake 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 when having the pads changed. The parking brake then gets adjusted with its twisted cable, which will fail quickly. Also, you may have recently replaced the parking cable, which could’ve been installed incorrectly; the cable may need to be seated in its clips correctly or the wrong one for the vehicle, so it’s an inch or two too short. Either way, it will stretch and snap.
- Physical damage – As the cable is open to the elements underneath the vehicle, it is also susceptible to damage from debris or impact. The parking cable is in metal clips that can also get damaged, causing the cable to get caught and snap.
Can I drive my car 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 applied constantly instead of using the parking brake when stopped in traffic. But it should be fine for most drivers.
How to park the car with a broken handbrake cable
If you drive an automatic transmission vehicle, parking the car shouldn’t cause much of a problem. Many drivers typically leave their vehicles in park and rarely use the handbrake anyway.
However, if you drive a manual transmission, you can leave the can gear; this will stop the car from rolling away. But this is only good to use if you parked on a nice flat level surface; parking on a hill and leaving the car in gear is not a good idea.
You might 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, 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.
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, unfortunately, can be time-consuming as you’ll need to remove the trim to get to the adjuster on the parking lever to readjust it. Below is precisely how I replace parking brake cables:
- 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 make sure you secure the car on axle stands before getting underneath it.
- Remove the old broken handbrake 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.
- 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, this is where the parking brake gets adjusted, so it is just a case of unhooking both cables. If you are not so fortunate, you will need to remove interior trim panels and maybe even the center console until you can find the handbrake adjuster, which you will need to readjust and readjust the cables.
- Replace the cables starting at the front of the, and make sure they are secure in clips or eyelets they must pass through before they are attached to the brake caliper.
- You must ensure the parking brake is fully off and deadjusted to save yourself any problems fitting the cable onto the caliper. The cable will have an eyelet that will hook onto the brake caliper mechanism the same way you removed it.
- Once the cable is installed, you must refit the brake caliper and wheels if you remove them. Now adjust the parking brake until you get between 3 and 5 clicks. You should hear the parking brake click on the ratchet mechanism if you slowly pull the lever up without pressing the release button.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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, as we should, means you can safely park the vehicle.
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.