First, the basics. There are many braking styles with subtle differences for varying circumstances. We’ll cover all of them but let’s begin with the moment when your driving instructor had that twinkle in his or her eye and said, ‘When I slap my clipboard, I want you to make an emergency stop.’
After weeks of training, finally something exciting was about to happen. The street ahead lay empty bar a few parked cars and an old man checking his post box. The seconds elongated, your heart skipped a beat, and you wondered how hard you should actually…
You lurched for the brake, possibly even remembering to apply the clutch to avoid the embarrassing shudder from the stalling engine, and came to a rest. A box was ticked and off you went.
The above technique works fine for braking to a stop in a hurry. However, I can almost guarantee you could have stopped faster because the vast majority of drivers never push the brake pedal hard enough in an emergency.
The reasons for this lie in a conceit of technology called ‘ABS’ and people like me preaching smooth driving. When it comes to stopping in a hurry, forget smoothness. The objective is to stop safely in the shortest possible distance, and to do that you need to brake as hard as possible in order to make the most of the available grip.
There are two kinds of braking: everyday and on the limit. If readers of this book unleash extraordinary new powers of the latter on the road, it is fair to say that insurance claims will skyrocket and my head will end up on a spike outside the Tower of London.
My view on this is that everybody, even the little old lady in the car in front, will brake on the limit at some point. Everyone would benefit from understanding what it feels like and what it means. For now, let’s just make sure we can pull up at the drive-in without spilling our milkshake.
Everyday Smooth Braking
The goal for everyday driving is to be as smooth and progressive with the pedal as possible, moderating your speed in a single graceful exercise. To do this, you deploy a widely accepted technique of feeling your way into the brake pedal, firming up the pressure to remove the bulk of your speed and finally feathering off the pressure for a smooth transition.
I still set my standard by that of the chauffeur who once zapped me across the Italian Alps to work on 007’s Quantum of Solace. He was so smooth that whenever we pulled to a stop and the springs began to rebound, raising the nose of his Mercedes, he bled the pressure off the brakes in the final few feet to perfectly counter-balance the effect. You could have performed open-heart surgery in the back seat.
I am considerably more accustomed to the bump and grind you get in the back of a minicab, where the guy bangs on and off the brake pedal like it’s a tambourine. Observe your passengers. If their torsos are jiving back and forth like the crowd at a rock concert then you are guilty of this most heinous crime.
By looking ahead and planning your braking phase, you should be able to squeeze the pedal gently without needing to come on and off it.
Braking in the Real World
The best brakers have an acute sense of vision, which has as much to do with eyesight as it does with forward planning. You look further ahead and wider than the average driver. This guarantees you the time needed to form an accurate braking plan based on your speed and the landscape feeding your eyes.
For switched-on drivers, the physical operation of your foot on the brake pedal is pre-planned on a subconscious level, based on the continuous assessment of the scene to ensure that you can always stop within the distance you can see is clear ahead.
As you approach the corner or obstacle you adjust your braking plan according to any new developments.