Hard braking is rarely discussed as a serious hazard on Australian roads. This is not because inappropriate use of the braking system does not lead to serious accidents. Rather it is because inappropriate hard braking is difficult to isolate as an accident cause, and is typically considered a symptom of other reckless driving behaviours like tailgating and speeding.
Hard braking is also slightly different to other major causes of vehicle accidents in Australia in that a persistent pattern of inappropriate braking behaviour has a cumulative effect on a vehicle’s safety systems. This leads to increased risk of mechanical failure over an extended period of time and can predispose a car to performing sub-optimally in an accident situation. The consequences of a pattern of reckless braking can be experienced during an accident even when not directly responsible for it.
While braking is an area of focus during driving instruction and on-road driving tests in Australia, drivers usually need to take an advanced driving course to develop a proper understanding of how a car’s braking system works, and how to use it optimally. The majority of drivers do not take these courses and instead rely on active safety features on their cars, like anti-lock braking systems (ABS) and electronic stability control (ESC) systems to assist them in hazardous situations.
While these systems can improve relative accident outcomes, improper understanding of their capabilities and limitations creates a false sense of security and can lead to more reckless driving.
Get fairer car insurance. Based on how you drive
What is reckless braking?
Reckless and unsafe braking involves decreasing the speed of your car over a short time period and distance, in any situation which emergency braking could have been avoided by sensible driving behaviour. What that means in practise is that most unsafe braking is emergency braking required by drivers who were either speeding, taking corners recklessly, or failing to observe a sensible following distance.
Typical examples of reckless braking can include:
- hard braking at any publicly posted stop signals
- braking hard to avoid a collision with a car in front of you that is observing traffic laws or appropriate speed
- braking while cornering due to entering or taking the corner at inappropriate speed.
It is not unusual for drivers who put excessive pressure on their braking systems to encounter all of the above or more on a regular basis.
Why reckless braking is dangerous
Reckless and unsafe braking can damage a key active safety features on a car, pose a risk to the safety of car occupants and become a hazard to other road users.
Wear and tear on braking system
Frequent hard braking accelerates the wear and tear on the parts that make up the braking system, reducing the efficiency of these systems as well as their lifespan.
Frequent hard braking will:
- result in frequent overheating of brakes which typically wears down vehicle brake pads and potentially damages brake tubes (which transmit brake fluid to the brakes)
- radically increase the rate of tyre wear, reducing the lifespan of the tyres and their effectiveness in a variety of potentially hazardous situations
- stress and potentially damage the valves and cylinder heads in the engine, which are sensitive to sudden increases or drops in engine revs
- damage the driving shaft
- stress the suspension system and all its parts
- hasten the contamination of brake fluid with contaminates like aluminium oxide and water.
Needless to say the combined pressure on these systems over time add up to reduced braking performance in a variety of scenarios.
Reduce braking efficiency
Because of the various safety systems installed in new cars, it’s easy to think that a car can handle a one-off emergency braking system with aplomb. What this fails to take into account is that these systems are in place specifically because the braking system handles hard braking so poorly, and that these are designed to limit some of the damage and risk that comes with hard braking.
In reality during any hard braking the entire brake system’s effectiveness is reduced significantly. Sudden braking causes major, rapid spikes in temperature in the braking system and warps the rotors in the car’s wheels, causing a big overall decrease in braking efficiency. The car’s tyre system also experienced rapid heat build-up, and a tyre may lose traction with the road if the conditions involved exceed its friction limit.
Meanwhile, uneven brake wear, which occurs even in well driven cars, will result in each of the four brakes delivering a different level of performance during hard braking. Because most cars wear our front brakes faster than rear brakes, this will usually result in rear brakes performing better during hard braking. What this does is transfer the force of braking to the front of the car, causing the rear wheels to lift off the road momentarily and lock.
In combination what this means is that even a single incident of hard braking exponentially increases a driver’s risk of losing control of their vehicle at the exact moment they require complete control of it. The more reckless a driver tends to be, the more likely they are to find themselves in this type of situation, and the less responsive their vehicle’s braking system will be when they need it most.
Sudden braking can easily lead to pile-up type accidents, particularly where more than one driver is not observing adequate following distance. Cars driving behind you will often use your braking behaviour to guide the way that they brake their vehicles, using visual cues like your brake lights and the deceleration of your vehicle. If you brake slowly you give them sufficient time to respond to the need to brake, and bring their car to a gradual halt without hard braking.
Slamming the brakes on significantly reduces the window of time in which drivers behind you have to react to the need to brake. Once you have slammed on your brakes they will have very little time to recognize the need to brake, and to then react and activate their own brakes. This means they are may have to slam on their own brakes, which will have a domino effect on the cars behind them.
So while hard braking may result in a driver successfully avoiding a collision with an object in front of them, it can still lead to serious rear collisions.
Reckless braking fatality statistics in Australia
As stated earlier, reckless braking is different to other accident causes in that it can have a cumulative effect on car braking performance that can contribute towards the severity of a car accident without being the primary cause. This means reckless braking can play a role in a potentially wide variety of accident types without being identified as the primary cause of the accident.
Reckless braking is also not recorded as an accident cause in any states or territories in Australia. Instead its fingerprints can be detected on certain accident types, such as run off road crashes on straight roads and rear-end collisions. Only a couple of handful of states collect statistics on either of these two accident types, with only New South Wales recording both.
The following tables use available statistical information to provide a general picture of the types of accidents most likely to result from reckless braking, as a percentage of the annual road toll for that state.
Rear-end collision accident fatalities
Run off a straight road accident fatalities
While identifying the specific number of accidents caused by reckless braking in the above statistics is not possible, they do provide an idea of the impact this behaviour is likely to have on the Australian road toll. In New South Wales these two accident types, when combined, account for 21% of the road toll over the past five years.
As time progresses, the widespread adoption of telematics technology like UbiCar is likely to provide more detailed information on the role of unsafe braking in serious accidents. Telematics reports will record both persistent patterns of unsafe braking and the braking behaviour of vehicles that are involved in severe accidents.
What this means for you
Once it is apparent how damaging reckless braking is to your car, and how lethal it can be for car occupants, it becomes fairly simple to reduce the risks associated with this behaviour. Here are some straightforward ways you can improve your handling of your vehicle while braking.
Leave adequate distance between yourself and cars in front of you. This should be a minimum of a two second gap between yourself and the car in front of you. Anything less will not allow you to stop in time in the event the vehicle in front of you comes to a sudden halt. Following distance should be increased proportional to vehicle speed as well as when road conditions are slippery. The more space between your car and the one in front of you, the longer you’ll have to stop your car.
Observe posted speed limits at all times, and further reduce speed in situations where the road surface or visibility is compromised. The faster you go, the more work your braking system needs to do to bring your car to a halt in an emergency. Driving more slowly will actually help you to bring your car to a stop less often. For example instead of racing up to a red light and then having to brake hard, you can reduce speed in anticipation of the light turning green and not have to stop at all.
The rule here is to apply pressure gently when braking. Then ease off the brakes gently when you want to accelerate again. These smooth braking behaviours prevent weight transfers between the front and back of your vehicle and provide a better ride quality while also avoiding unnecessary strain on your suspension and brakes.
Always keep your eyes on the road in front of you. However, don’t just focus on the car in front of you – keep an eye on what is happening further down the road. You’re far more likely to pick up potentially hazardous situations and bring your car to a more gentle stop if things further down the road do go wrong. Avoid mobile phone distraction at all costs – it kills.
Understand ABS brakes and how to use them
Anti-lock braking systems are designed to prevent wheel lock during braking. During emergency braking they may generate a noticeable pulse through the brake pedal, and in such cases you should not remove your foot from the pedal. Also keep in mind that anti-lock braking systems increase braking distance on gravel, dirt or snow-covered roads, so always drive slowly on these surfaces.
Track and score your braking
It can be difficult to tell whether or not your braking is affecting your car’s safety systems until it is too late. Fortunately the latest generation of telematics technology allows you to install an app in your smart phone that uses your phone’s motion sensors to determine when you are braking too hard. Your braking will be reported at the end of each trip, and you can use this feedback to improve your driving and get better scores on braking.