Braking Requires Decisive Footwork

Hard, early action is always a wise tactic

By: Alan Sidorov
(Copyright ©, 2004)

The crosswalk light had turned green, but I waited. An oncoming vehicle didn’t look likely to stop in time, and there seemed little sense in being a test dummy for an SUV’s bumper.

The Explorer was going quite fast, and its driver committed that cardinal braking sin of braking too lightly early in the stop. Instead, pressure was added progressively so the highest brake level was at the end of the stop. Whether on racing slicks on the track or in a street situation, braking harder earlier takes advantage of load transfer, kinetic energy and all that good stuff to bring a vehicle to a halt in a significantly shorter distance. This is best done not with a slam, but rather a quick, positive press on the brake pedal. Good anti-lock brakes do permit the slam, penalty free unless the driver then tries to pump the brakes, sabotaging the system’s work.

From the side it was easy to see the Ford’s anti-lock brakes kick-in, but if there is little traction even advanced electronics can’t do much. By this point the SUV had entered the Zamboni area, those few metres/yards at stop signs and lights that have been polished slick by late braking and wheelspin from drivers accelerating too hard. The driver’s death grip on the wheel and “Omigod!” expression were visible as the Explorer slid past, eventually halting in the middle of the intersection. Fortunately there was no oncoming traffic.

Braking skills are not a new subject in this column. Footwork in general is one of the things we work on the most in racing and advanced driving schools. Think of proper braking like a graph that spikes relatively early then trails off, versus one that starts low and climbs to a peak. The result should be a chauffeur stop, with brake pressure gradually reducing so there is no final lurch to spill the passenger’s double espresso. Good truck drivers know this and demonstrate it, though now and then someone in a car will decide to cut in front of them before a red light, spoiling the whole effort.

The fellow in the Explorer had one other option, which went unused. He stayed on the most slippery part of the road, which appeared clear but was covered by a thin film of ice. Just to the sides were snow covered patches, with gravel on them, which would have provided more braking grip.

Last time I wrote about proper braking I received a couple of letters from people who were concerned that if they braked hard, they would be hit from behind by someone with a different game plan. The simple answer is that overall awareness and frequent mirror scans will let you know who is around, beside or behind you. If there is someone on your back bumper, you are effectively driving two cars. Slow earlier to compensate for the other motorist’s lack of judgment. In a worst case, take the hit from behind. Then it is their accident, while flinging a pedestrian into the emergency ward carries a far higher penalty.