Weighing the pros and cons of using the parking brake

Dear Car Talk:

Is it a good idea to ALWAYS put on the parking brake? Does doing so keep the transmission from being stressed to hold the car in place? My son told me this, and I do believe him; it makes sense. But I just want to make sure. Most of my friends do NOT set the parking brake. If it really is a good thing to do, should I be advising them to do it also – without sounding like a “smarty-pants”? Love your column. – Ann

RAY: To parking brake, or not to parking brake? It’s not as simple as it seems, Ann.

I guess my answer is that it’s a good habit to get into. It’s a backup safety system. Assuming you have an automatic transmission, the parking brake is not needed to keep the car from moving, certainly not on flat ground. But if, for some crazy reason, the car slipped out of gear (or, as is unfortunately too common, the driver forgot to put it in park), then the parking brake would prevent the car from rolling away, or – even worse – rolling over the driver as he or she tried to exit the vehicle. That’s a pretty good reason in itself to use the parking brake.

The other advantage is that it can make it easier to get the car out of park when you park on a hill. When you park on a steep hill, after you put the car in park and take your foot off the brake, you’ve probably noticed that the car rolls down the hill a bit. That jams the transmission’s parking pawl against its ratchet mechanism. That doesn’t do any mechanical harm, but it can make it hard to get the shifter out of park when you want to drive away.

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If you’re a parking-brake user, and you put the car in park and then apply the parking brake before you release the brake pedal, the parking brake will keep the car from rolling, and will make it easier to shift out of park and drive away. Just remember to shift the lever into gear before releasing the parking brake on your way out.

What’s the downside of using the parking brake? Well, if you rarely use it, the cables can rust and stick in the “on” position. Then you’ll have to get it towed and repaired.

And the other downside is that you forget it’s on, and drive away smoking your brakes, wondering why the car doesn’t seem to have its usual power.

But I’d say overall, I think it’s a good habit to get into. And kudos to the carmakers who are starting to make cars with parking brakes that apply themselves automatically when you put the car in park, so future generations won’t have to struggle with this terrible moral dilemma, Ann.

Last-ditch possible cheap fix for leaking radiator

Dear Car Talk:

I have a 1991 Mazda Miata that I bought new nearly 27 years ago. It has 230,000 miles on it and, believe it or not, is having its first problem: a leaky radiator. The radiator is leaking all around its top seam, so it needs to be replaced. My problem is that I cannot afford to do it right now. I’ve been driving it with the radiator not full, because if I fill it, it just leaks out. The temperature rises to normal and has never gone above that. Am I doing any damage? In a Quandary – Ron

RAY: Wow, 230,000 miles. You’re only 20,000 miles from the moon, Ron. The question is: Are you going to make it? Might be time to fire the retro rockets.

If you’re not currently overheating, then my guess is you’re not driving very far or very fast. If you really heat up this engine, the cooling system won’t be able to hold pressure, and the car will overheat. So keep that in mind, and don’t plan any road trips to Quito, Ecuador.

You’ll also want to keep a close eye on the coolant level. If it drops too low, you could overheat even on short, slow trips. And last time we checked, engines cost much more than radiators.

So my first suggestion would be to use your credit card and fix it. If this is your only means of transportation for the foreseeable future, you might not want to risk it.

If you really can’t fix it now, you might as well try one of the radiator stop-leak additives you can find at your local auto-parts store. It works kind of like a blood clot: You put it in the radiator, and it circulates around; when it escapes through the leak (when it hits the air outside the leak), it hardens. And then it builds up until, if you’re really lucky, it kind of patches the hole.

Does it work? Sometimes. And for a while – it’s not state of the art, Ron. It’d be like attaching pump-organ pedals to your heart instead of implanting an electronic pacemaker. But desperate times call for desperate, and really cheap, measures.

So give it a try. If it doesn’t work, all you’ve lost is eight bucks. And a delay of a few more Bitcoin trades until you can save up enough to replace the thing. Good luck.

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