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Bracing for Impact: Is It Better to Brake?

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Dear Tom and Ray:

I drive in city traffic daily, and I find that at least once per day, I have to brake sharply from traffic speed to a dead stop. I usually check the rearview mirror to see what is happening behind me as I stop. The question is: If someone is about to hit me, should I release the brakes to lessen the impact, potentially pushing me into the car in front of me, or should I hold the brakes and take the full impact on my rear bumper? My gut tells me to hold the brake, but could I suffer less total damage by having a little damage on both ends, or should I take the hit and try to spare the vehicle in front of me? Thanks.

-- Dwayne



TOM: Well, I think you should stop texting your bookie while you drive, Dwayne. That may result in fewer panic stops.

RAY: But if you're in city traffic and someone is about to hit you from behind, I think you're better off keeping your foot on the brake.

TOM: First of all, rear-end damage tends to be a lot less expensive than front-end damage. There's simply more stuff in the front end. And it's pricier stuff. There's the radiator, the steering components, the air-conditioning condenser and the engine. In the back, there's ... well, the trunk.

RAY: Second, if you take your foot off the brake, you'll be sacrificing the car of the guy in front of you, and potentially injuring someone who isn't braced for impact. And that's not nice. Especially if you can avoid it.

TOM: And finally (and this is just my opinion), I think that you're less likely to get hurt if you take one hit rather than two. If someone hits you from behind, and you're braced for it -- pushing on the brake, pushing yourself into the driver's seat and your head into the headrest -- you'll take one shot, but the seat and headrest will help brace you.

RAY: Whereas if the brake is off, you'll take more whiplash as your car shoots forward, and then reverse-whiplash (whatever that is -- lashwhip?) when your car hits the car in front of you. So that's two chances to get hurt.

TOM: If there's no car in front of you, then taking your foot off the brake can allow some of the energy from the impact to be converted into motion, rather than having your car absorb it all. But if you're in traffic, I'd say keep your foot on the brake, push back into the seat and text your bookie "OMG!"

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