When manual transmission vehicles were more common, the parking brake was the preferred method of keeping a car from moving once parked. Automatic transmissions use a parking pawl instead. This component locks the transmission's output shaft, ultimately preventing the vehicle's drive wheels from turning and keeping the car from moving.

Although parking brakes no longer have a central role to play for most drivers, they are still critical safety elements. Your parking brake (also commonly known as an emergency brake) provides extra security on hills, and it can give you an emergency backup in the event of a brake failure. Learning about these three potential problems can help you to spot trouble with this crucial and oft-ignored part.

1. Loose Parking Brake Lever

Many modern cars use electronic parking brakes activated with a button or switch, but physical levers are still commonplace. Parking brakes that use a lift lever work via a mechanical linkage. The lever attaches to a cable, and the physical force of pulling up on the lever applies the brakes. Releasing the lever releases the brakes.

Since these designs are simple and provide direct mechanical feedback, a loose lever usually indicates a cable with too much slack. Repairing this problem is usually straightforward since most parking brakes are adjustable, although this task typically requires some disassembly. In rare cases, the cable can snap or break free, but this will leave the lever with no tension at all.

2. Stuck Parking Brake

A stuck parking brake will drag as you drive, potentially damaging several components in your braking system. Dragging brakes are usually most noticeable at low speeds before your car overcomes the initial resistance. Because driving on a stuck brake can create a wide range of other problems, you should never ignore this problem.

In most cases, parking brakes stick due to wear on the connecting cable. Rust or even ice can cause the linkage to seize up, making it challenging (or even impossible) to disengage by hand. You can try breaking the seize free by rocking your car gently forward and backward, but repairing the problem will ultimately require you to replace the cable.

3. Noisy Parking Brake

In many modern cars, the parking brake is an entirely separate drum brake assembly located on one or both of the rear tires. Since this brake does not engage under normal conditions, you shouldn't hear any noises from it while driving. It can still wear out with time and use, however. When applying the brake (especially on hills), a loud groaning noise may indicate a need for adjustment or replacement.

While it's easy to ignore the parking brake on modern, automatic vehicles, this critical safety component should never be allowed to fail. If you notice these issues, consult with a brake shop as soon as possible for brake repair.