Is it better to alternate on and off brakes, or to apply steady pressure?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Sep 01, 1999

Dear Tom and Ray:

Is it better to apply the brakes and then let off alternately, or just apply
steady pressure when slowing down or stopping? And which method causes less wear
on the brakes? -- Bishop

RAY: Well, let's ignore the wear-and-tear issue for the moment. There are a
couple of safety situations that call for "alternating on and off" the brakes.
One is slick roads. If you don't have anti-lock brakes, pumping the brakes
(releasing them just as they start to lock up and then immediately reapplying
them) can help you stay in control of the car and keep from skidding while you

TOM: The other situation where constant, steady pressure is NOT a good idea is
when you're going down a long, steep hill. Then you want to use a low gear AND
minimize your dependence on the brakes. Excessive use of the brakes -- whether
constant or intermittent -- could lead the brakes to overheat, which could make
the brake fluid boil and lead to complete brake failure.

RAY: But to get back to your question about which method causes less wear on the
brakes, the answer is: Nobody knows. And my guess is that -- in terms of wear and
tear on the brakes -- the difference is so slight that it hardly matters.

TOM: However, I'd strongly recommend against "pulsing" the brakes under normal
circumstances. Even if it does cause less wear and tear (and that's a big "if"),
any money you save will be more than eaten up by the cleaning bills -- the bills
to remove the puke stains from the upholstery from all of your nauseated
passengers. So except in the situations we mentioned above, Bishop, try to brake
smoothly and gently.

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