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Will stopping on rough surfaces damage your car's braking system?

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Dear Tom and Ray:



Way back when, when I was 16, I went on a backpacking trip with my pal Cliff. We took my venerable '68 VW Squareback. As we were approaching a stop sign with railroad tracks in front of it, I braked while crossing the tracks. Cliff informed me that it is bad to apply the brakes on rough surfaces, as this greatly taxes the brake system. He said you should brake before hitting the rough stuff. This sort of made sense, and I have been doing it for more than 30 years now. Is there any truth in this? Can I step on the brakes while going over railroad tracks? -- Jon

TOM: Well, Cliff gave you good advice, Jon. But for a completely wackadoodle reason.

RAY: Right. It IS good to slow down before you go over a rough surface like railroad tracks. But not because you'll hurt the brakes. You should slow down before railroad tracks so that you go slowly OVER the railroad tracks.

TOM: Driving fast over rough surfaces punishes your suspension system, and puts extra wear and tear on things like your tie rods, ball joints and steering components. So it's always good to slow down before you go over railroad tracks, potholes or speed bumps.

RAY: But if you need to slow down while driving ON a rough surface, go ahead and do so. The brakes couldn't care less.

TOM: If the surface is rough enough that the tires are literally bouncing up off the ground momentarily, the anti-lock braking system will kick in to keep you from skidding. In that case, you may feel the brake pedal pulsing. That's exactly what's supposed to happen with ABS. There's nothing wrong with that.

RAY: The bottom line is that the brakes are there to slow or stop the car. And especially with modern computer-controlled systems, like ABS and electronic stability control, our best advice is to use the brakes when you need them. Don't worry about protecting the car -- let the car protect you.

TOM: And if you're feeling generous, drop a dime to Cliff's adult children -- and tell them they don't have to spend the next 30 years worrying about hurting their brakes. Because you know he taught them the same baloney!
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