How and When To Engine Brake

How and When To Engine Brake

Last Updated July 21, 2021 | Meghan Drummond

Engine braking is a technique that everyone should be using a lot more. Not only is it good for the lifespan of your car’s brakes, but when done correctly, engine braking will make you a safer driver and create a more pleasant driving experience.

Automatic transmission cars and manual transmissions can both engine brake. If you see signs indicating that engine braking isn’t allowed in a certain area, that’s referring specifically to diesel truck engines, virtually always being used in a semi-truck.

Semis are also capable of engine braking, but when they use this method it creates a loud noise (sounding like almost like a rumbling jackhammer), so many neighborhoods have put up signs along highways that skirt close to their communities indicating that engine braking is prohibited. A "Jake Brake" is a diesel engine-specific engine braking system that semis use. Because it's made by the company Jacobs, and because Jake and brake rhyme, the term evolved naturally and is now so commonly used that you may even see signs referring specifically to "Jake braking." Unless you’re driving a semi, these signs aren’t for you since engine braking doesn’t cause passenger vehicles to make any kind of additional noise.

No engine braking road sign
This only pertains to semi-trucks

What Is Engine Braking?

Engine braking is using your engine to brake instead of simply applying the foot brake. For manual drivers, that means downshifting, and for automatic drivers, it can be as simple as taking your foot off of the gas. If you're in an automatic transmission with selectable gears, downshifting can help expedite your deceleration via engine braking if you want to slow down even more quickly.

When the throttle is released and closes, it causes a vacuum in the manifold that, coupled with the friction in your drivetrain, will cause a sudden feeling of deceleration. The combination of restricted airflow and vacuum creation causes a rapid loss of energy in the engine that can slow your car down effectively without causing wear and tear to your brakes.

A foot hovering over brake and gas pedals
Just hover over the pedals

Pros of Engine Braking

The most obvious “pro” to using this driving strategy is that your brakes get less wear and tear. This can be especially valuable when driving down long hills. When you slow your car down before applying the brakes, you also reduce how much time your brakes spend being subjected to high heat and pressure, which contributes to brake warping and can make brake pads need more frequent replacement.

Engine braking is also significantly better for traffic. Unfortunately, every time you touch your brake pedal, your brake lights come on. While this a great safety feature, it also causes massive congestion problems. When the driver behind you sees your brake lights, they’ll touch their brakes as well, and so on, causing traffic to slow down and contributing to a line of irritated drivers behind you.

When we all use our brake pedals as the only way to slow down, drivers behind us never know if we’re just trying to carve a couple of mph off so that we’re back within the legal limit or if we’re about to slam on brakes because there is a deer or other major event that will result in more extreme braking.

Subsequently, being able to slow down without creating that doubt or congestion is invaluable.

You might assume that not hitting your brakes might make engine braking a less safe way of slowing your car down, but this isn't the case in many scenarios. Taking your foot off of the throttle and keeping it off of the brake leaves you in a “ready” state, uncommitted to either extreme and ready to react in seconds to situations ahead of you. If you do need additional braking power, you should, naturally, depress the brake pedal as needed.

front view of city traffic
Engine braking helps with congestion

Cons of Engine Braking

Unlike braking, which is an instantaneous reaction to immediate events, engine braking requires you to anticipate a need to brake, like a hill or a reduced speed limit ahead sign, or have enough time you don’t need to immediately be going slower.

This level of road surveying, driving anticipation, and predictive behavior requires practice and work, which means it may take a while before you feel one hundred percent comfortable with it. In short, the biggest con is that it requires drivers to shake habits they’ve become so accustomed to they no longer question them.

Bad braking habits have become so normal that many have forgotten that stopping at the last second is supposed to be an emergency safety plan, not the standard.

Why Should You Engine Brake?

Every time you touch your foot brake, you’re throwing money away and reducing the lifespan of your car. Hitting the brake means that you had to overuse fuel and weren’t able to adequately read the road, and consequently, your brakes are bearing the brunt of that (though your car's tires and transmission also take a bit of a beating).

By engine braking, you reduce wear and tear on the car, don’t use more fuel than you need, and are able to coast to a stop, which is much more pleasant for you and your passengers.

Engine braking has very few cons, especially as you get more comfortable with it, and a substantive host of benefits. We recommend that everyone try it and attempt to utilize the practice more in their daily driving. Unless you drive a semi, in which case you should make sure you know the local laws first!

Meghan Author Photo

About the Author

Meghan is a Classic Mustang geek with a soft spot for four-eyed Foxes. She has over 300 in-depth articles to her credit that have been cited by some of the top news sites in the US. Read full bio →

Image Credit: Ford, Driver Prep, Road Traffic Signs

How and When To Engine Brake

Engine braking spares your brake pads, improves your fuel economy, and makes you a better, safer driver. This is a driving technique everyone should learn. Here’s your guide to how, and when, to engine brake.