Tips for saving your brakes when driving down steep grades, including how to use “engine braking” instead of pressing the brake pedal to slow your vehicle down.
We just returned from a trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee — home to the Great Smoky Mountains.
Many of the roads between tourist traps (I mean “sightseeing destinations”) are incredibly steep and winding. Some roads wind UP one entire side of the mountain, then require that you drive back DOWN a narrow winding road on the other side.
Needless to say, with the amount of traffic over the 4th of July holiday, and the sheer number of mountains which exist in the Smokies, we had several occasions to test our downhill driving skills (and our brakes!) this weekend.
“It’s An Automatic… I Don’t NEED To Downshift, Right?”
There are times — even in a vehicle with automatic transmission — that you SHOULD manually downshift. Those times are: When you are driving down steep hills.
Sure, I’d seen it done before.
On our family vacations growing up, Dad would drop the old-fashioned dashboard gear shift lever down a notch every time he went down a steep winding hill. Then kick it up a notch at times. Then, back down again.
He played this fancy game of gearshift knobbing virtually every time we drove from Indiana to Florida. (Come to find out, this was usually while traveling through the mountains of Chattanooga, Tennessee.)
Back then, I thought it had more to do with the fact that we were pulling a boat trailer than it did with actually saving our brakes.
This weekend, I learned firsthand the proper use of “2” and “1” on my automatic gear shift, and it made our downhill driving experience SO much more enjoyable.
And judging by the rancid smell of hot smoking brakes and brake dust which filled the air throughout most of Gatlinburg, Tennessee this weekend, I know some Smoky Mountain tourists who could learn a thing or two from today’s post…
On The Downhill
Instead of using your brakes to slow your vehicle down on a steep grade, use what is known as “engine braking” (big-rig drivers use something similar called “jake brake“).
This is a good idea if you want to:
a) save your brakes a lot of unnecessary wear & tear
b) actually HAVE brakes at the end of the hill!
In fact, you will increase the life of your brakes by a few months (or even years, depending on how much steep downhill driving you do) if you simply use engine braking whenever possible, rather than actually pressing the brake pedal to slow your vehicle.
In short, you are literally using the engine to break the speed of your vehicle traveling downhill.
This does NO harm to the engine itself or any of the inner working parts.
Here’s how to do it…
Shifting On The Fly
In a vehicle with automatic transmission, you can “shift-on-the-fly” into 2nd gear (indicated as “2” on the gear shift) at any point while you are driving, so long as you are traveling under 50 mph or so.
You will hear the engine downshift into this lower gear, and the vehicle will begin to slow, naturally and safely, while you continue to drive and maintain your place in the traffic as you head on down the hill.
The result: Your need to actually use the brakes will be SIGNIFICANTLY reduced!
In fact, should you feel the need to slow down even MORE on a really steep hill, then feel free to “shift-on-the-fly” into 1st gear (indicated as “1” on the gear shift) while you are driving, so long as you are traveling under 30 mph or so.
In both 2nd and 1st gears, you can continue to give it gas AND utilize your brakes like normal, though your need to do so will greatly be reduced.
Whenever you reach flatter land and no longer need to slow down by pressing the brakes OR using engine braking, then feel free to shift back into your normal “D” (Drive) position on the gear shift. This can be done at any point while you are driving, so long as you are going 50 mph or less (to go from 2nd to “D”) or 30 mph or less (to go from 1st to “D”) — as stated above.
Top Speeds In 2nd and 1st Gears
In 2nd gear, you can safely travel at virtually ANY speed (which the terrain and the degree of incline permit).
If you ever take it down to 1st gear however, you will notice that you can’t go much faster than 35 mph in 1st. If you give it gas, the engine will simply rev louder, but you won’t really go any faster. You’ve topped out 1st gear, speed-wise.
If you need to go faster when you’re in 1st, then simply switch to 2nd gear — “on-the-fly”. You can safely switch between 2nd and 1st gears anywhere in the 30-mph-or-less range.
Again, once you reach flat land and no longer need to slow your vehicle in such a way, then simply shift back into “D” for normal driving and use your brakes again for routine slowing and stopping.
“What If I Use My Brakes INSTEAD of Engine Braking?”
You could significantly wear our your brakes.
We’re talking… you could actually reduce the life of your brakes by months or even years, depending on the degree to which you “ride the brake” on such steep grades.
You could lose your brakes altogether! No joke.
That stench of brake dust (that goes hand-in-hand with squealing brakes) is a sign that your brakes are too hot. If you overheat your brakes and don’t take enough time in between to let them cool off a bit, then you can actually fry your brakes — leaving you with virtually NO stopping power at the bottom of the hill.
You may even begin to see SMOKE coming from your overheated brakes. Everyone knows, where there’s smoke there’s fire, so you’re really taking your chances at this point.
You’re polluting the ozone. And in a place like beautiful Gatlinburg, Tennessee that’s full of all sorts of natural beauty… now, why would you want to do this?
You think I’m kidding about the smell of brake dust. I’m not! I actually wonder how those working in the souvenir shops and stores which are perched on the downhill side of the main roads can even HANDLE the stench.
You run the risk of being humiliated via photographs and video footage showing you, behind the wheel, driving like an imbecile with hot, smoking brakes down a steep hill… if WE are stuck behind you, that is!
Now THAT’s a price you don’t wanna pay, trust me. :o)