By on June 24, 2013

Picture courtesy the author.

There was some mild consternation among the Best&Brightest when I admitted to left-foot braking the Focus SE in traffic. To a man (or woman), our readers were not pleased at the thought that I might be bumbling along a freeway at ten miles per hour or so, alternately pressing the brake and accelerator with one foot per pedal. One wonders what they might have made of LJK Setright’s famous assertion that he occasionally drove cross-footed, pressing the accelerator with his left foot and the brake with his right, “to ensure that driving is a conscious, not unconscious, activity.”

In any event, I would suggest that there is one scenario where you may left-foot brake, one scenario where you should, and one where you absolutely must not, and I’ve detailed them below.

Before we discuss all the different ways in which you can left-foot brake, let’s make sure we understand how the pedals are “normally” operated in a street car. The driver sits down with his left foot braced against the floor — or the dead pedal, where such a thing can be found. The role of the left foot is important here. Consider this: when a car accelerates, the driver is held in place by the upright portion of the seat. When a car corners, the driver is held in place by the seat bolsters, the seatbelt, or, in worst-case scenarios, by the door and the center console. When a car decelerates, however, what holds the driver’s body in place? A reasonably fit individual might be able to resist 1g of braking force by pressing his hands against the steering wheel; that’s kind of like doing a pushup with your hands close together. Some seatbelts will inertia-lock and hold the driver in place, but that’s not a mechanism on which the driver can count.

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, when a car slows suddenly the driver is retained in his seat by applying pressure with his left foot against the floor or the car or the dead pedal. You could test this yourself by driving across a parking lot with your left leg tucked under your bottom, hitting the brake pedals with your right foot hard enough to engage ABS, and then observing what happens. Make sure there’s nothing around for you to hit, of course, because chances are you’re going to slam against the steering wheel pretty hard and lose some or all of the control you have of the car. You’re certainly going to lose any ability you have to modulate brake pressure during the episode; the weight of your body will be transmitted through the brake pedal and you won’t be able to stop braking until you’ve come to a halt.

The above scenario is why your high-school driving instructor wouldn’t let you left-foot brake. It’s not a reasonable way to operate a vehicle on the street at any kind of speed. If you’re in a car as a passenger and you see the driver using the left foot to slow said car, you should speak up. It’s dangerous and not advised, period.

What about when you’re crawling in traffic, however? In situations like that, I left-foot-brake all the time. I wouldn’t say there’s anything wrong with it. At five miles per hour, it’s pretty tough to get yourself killed with even a full-pressure random brake application. I also have no reason to believe it’s particularly hard on brake linings or torque converters. The forces involved are a fraction of what the car can generate. I just swapped out the front brake pads on my Town Car for the first time — at 93,500 miles. I haven’t changed the rear pads, because they don’t need it yet. If driving said Town Car in traffic with both feet is hard on the brakes, I have to wonder how long they last if you don’t drive the car with both feet. 200k? Forever?

Professional drivers — as in professional livery drivers, not LMP2 pilots — use both feet in traffic to smooth the passenger experience. If the brake is applied as the accelerator is released, and vice versa, it’s possible to creep through traffic without jouncing the VIPs. As some of the readers noted, however, most modern cars are considerably more sophisticated than Panthers. They’re engineered for legal considerations as well as mechanical ones, and one of those considerations is that the brake must always stop the car immediately even if the accelerator is being pressed. Therefore, to avoid being the subject of a “60 Minutes”-style hatchet job, nearly every car you can buy today closes the throttle the minute it thinks you’re operating the brake. As I noted in my Focus test, double-clutch automated manuals are also confused by operating both pedals at the same time, even briefly, and they’ll misbehave as a result.

So, let’s review. Driving down the freeway? Put your left foot on the floor and leave it out of the proceedings. Stuck in traffic? If you have a torque-converter car without the latest in paranoid electronics, feel free to use both feet. If you have a DCT or, say, a modern Audi sedan, your experience might vary.

That covers all possible experiences on the street. What about on the racetrack? Here we have a different set of rules. On a racetrack, we have a five-point harness holding us in the car. We don’t need the left foot to support the body during hard braking. If we don’t have a five-point harness, a CG-Lock also works very well. It holds the lap belt in a fixed position and retains the driver’s body in the seat during deceleration. Every Stock-class autocrosser worth his salt uses one. I brought one to the CTS-V Challenge only to find that Bob Lutz’s car, which he shared with me, already had a heavier-duty variant of the CG-Lock installed.

Once properly belted and restrained, we are free to use the left foot to brake. In stick-shift cars, we can only do so when we aren’t downshifting for the turn, and that doesn’t happen very often. In an automatic-transmission car or an automated manual, however, we can left-foot brake for each and every turn, as I did in my recent on-track test of the Camry SE.

Noted IndyCar driver Alex Lloyd wrote a column about why you should brake with your left foot at all times. He points out that you can lose up to one second every time you move your foot from the accelerator to the brake and vice versa. That’s totally legit, and it’s the biggest reason to LFB on a racetrack. (The second-biggest reason is the additional ability you get to adjust your car in the midcorner if you’re free to use both pedals in sharp succession.) It’s safe to say that there are very few professional drivers (in the non-livery sense) using their right feet to brake unless they’re concurrently using their left foot to operate the clutch.

His claims that you should use the left foot to brake on the street so you can go faster on said street, however, should probably be disregarded. If you’re braking hard enough to really make time on a fast back road, you need your left foot to brace your body. I forgive Mr. Lloyd for forgetting to mention this, since my guess is that he’s been too busy racing IndyCars and doing exciting stuff like that to put in a couple of thousand laps in the right seat of student-driven cars at open-lapping events. Unfortunately for me, I have not been too busy to do exactly that, so I’ve seen the negative outcomes that happen when people try to use their left feet to brake the car while wearing a traditional three-point belt. I do agree that you can theoretically brush your left foot on the brake in fast street corners to adjust the car, but what happens if you’re in the middle of doing that and a deer runs in front of you? You’re going to max-pressure the brake pedal with that same left foot, and then, as Al Pacino tells DeNiro in Heat, “brother, you are going down.”

It’s best to think of left-foot braking as the equivalent of biting your girlfriend. You can do it softly when you’re just messing around, and you can go for it when you’re full-throttle, but in everyday situations it might be unwelcome. No, wait, that’s a terrible analogy. Let’s just say this: that when it comes to left-foot braking, as with everything else, the answers aren’t as straightforward as they might initially seem.

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42 Comments on “Trackday Diaries: The idiot’s guide to left-foot braking....”

  • avatar

    Eventually you won’t have to brake cars at all. They’ll do it for you with all this “pre-safe” brake technology that senses when a crash is imminent and auto slams the brakes.

  • avatar

    All the recent cars which I have driven had seat belts that easily locked up under hard braking. Also, I’ve found that even when not locked up, the lower belt portion has sufficient friction to restrict movement. (A typical test is what happens when you adjust your seat forward when wearing the belt. It may be free to move, but as often as not, it tries to cut you in half.)

    • 0 avatar

      If you’re doing full-bore emergency braking, you still need to brace with your feet.

      A three-point harness hurts hijjus when you’re hanging from it at over 1g of braking force. A five-point racing harness spreads the load better. With a street harness, if you’re not bracing with your feet, your ribcage will be black and blue after about a dozen full-bore brake applications.

      Or, if you’re like me, and you have to do over a hundred per day, in cars with nothing but three-point belts, you’ll have a hard time getting out of bed the next day.

      • 0 avatar

        “Full-bore emergency braking” is, IMO, for *emergencies*, and so multiple instances in a day is not a design/operation requirement of normal cars. (Racing is a different matter.)

        My point is not that it doesn’t hurt or that bracing yourself is not good, just that the seat belt *will* lock up and hold you during such an emergency stop.

  • avatar

    What about stretching out sideways across the bench seat and using your left foot for both brake and acceleration?

    On the Street?
    On the Track?

  • avatar

    I’ve done similarly just a slight increase on the rear brake when on a Ducati in SE Ohio roads. It works great when you need a little adjustment. Also seen a battery operated fork truck driver. But can under stand when piloting an almost 10,000 lbs of steel and battery to overcome the throttle delay and weight.

    I’d never do it is a car with rear wheel drive. That’s what the throttle is for. :)

    • 0 avatar

      Nice intro to trail braking. It works. If you don’t like it, don’t do it. Simple.
      Norm, why would anyone want to ride in SE Ohio? Everyone knows Ohio is flat. ;)

  • avatar

    Seeing the Townie being hustled around the track makes me want Jack as my ride to the airport. ;)

  • avatar

    That’s some nice Panther p0rn. Is there any go-pro footage you can direct us to?

  • avatar

    I remember having to left foot brake constantly with a Seat Ibiza that just wouldn’t idle properly. Horribly annoying with a manual transmission.

  • avatar

    Maybe I missed it, but what about putting your momentum when slowing down into the brake?
    I can drive all da…. Until my leg is numb with it tucked under my butt.

  • avatar

    Thanks for the nice explanation. I recently broke my right ankle. When I first got back behind the wheel, I had to break with my left foot to avoid pain. You don’t have to be Einstein to immediately figure out that slow and easy does it with this driving style. The one panic stop I had during that period I did instinctively with my right foot despite the pain.

  • avatar

    While Jack’s article is informative and well-reasoned, Alex Lloyd’s advice in the linked article just makes no sense to me. While I’m nowhere near the driver to benefit (yet) from adjusting my speed mid-corner with the brakes, I can definitely see the benefit during track or performance-oriented driving. Likewise, I see the benefit of being able to go directly from the gas to the brakes in a racing situation, but his assertion that always using left-foot-braking on the street is safer comes across as simply assinine.

    I’m picturing one of three scenarios. In the first, the driver is cruising along down the road with the right foot on the gas and the left on the dead pedal. Suppose something happens that makes him suddenly have to brake. The driver moves his right foot from the gas pedal to the brake, which, conveniently enough, is right next to where his right foot has been. The left foot is well-positioned to brace for the impending forces. Gee, it’s almost like the engineers set things up like this on purpose!

    In the second scenario, the driver has his right foot on the gas, left on the dead pedal, as before. He suddenly has to brake, and has to move his left foot off the dead pedal, a considerable bit backwards, up, and to the right to reach the brakes. He now has nothing to brace himself against, and not being a professional driver, and having no means of supporting himself against the deceleration forces, may or may not depress the gas with his right foot, having the opposite of the intended effect of stopping as quickly as possible, while losing steering control because his body is flailing around wildly, as Jack described.

    In the final scenario, the driver has his right foot on the gas, left foot on, or over, the brake pedal. This does give the benefit of near-instantaneous transitioning from gas to brake, but is extremely tiring to the foot, gives rise to the possibility of inadvertantly resting the left foot on the brake while cruising, causing heat and wear in the brakes while lighting up the brake lights to the confusion of drivers behind. All the while, there’s no means of supporting oneself during turns, and the gas-brake-application and flailing problems during sudden stops from the second scenario aren’t solved, either.

    Sometimes being a racing driver doesn’t necessarily mean you’re qualified to give sound driving advice to mere mortals.

    Sidebar: Thanks to Jack’s article, I just ordered a CG-Lock and am excited to learn how much it’ll increase my car control on my next lapping day.

    • 0 avatar

      I too looked at ordering one, but I might be too much of a tight wad to spend $60 plus shipping on a seat belt clip. I’ll be trolling eBay for that one.

      • 0 avatar

        I’m having good success locking the seatbelt and then buckling it. That way you get both shoulder and lap support (CG only supports your lap).
        There are two ways you can do this: either move your seat back, plug in your belt, pull it tight and lock it by pulling suddenly on the belt. Move your seat forward so it is tightly pressing you in place and holding the belt locked. OR, without moving your seat, buckle the belt, pull it tight, unbuckle it and let it slide back a bit, pull suddenly to lock it. Press on the dead pedal and breath in to clip the belt in again so it is tight.

        The 2nd method does not work so well with soft seat cushions (1G will compress you into the seat enough to unlock the belt).

        Oh, and even with the belt locked, I still need to support myself using the dead pedal under sustained 1G cornering to prevent my upper body flopping sideways out of the seat without compromising steering feel and control.

        • 0 avatar

          Good point. I’ve never checked my driver seat retractor to see if it has the child seat locking feature which could be useful for this as well. That is pulling it all the way out until the lock engages then it continues to ratchet down until it is sufficiently retracted. It could work while increasing the height or moving the seat forward and retracting. Ill give it a try later on.

    • 0 avatar

      I completely agree with your comments on Alex Lloyd’s advice. For the normal driver, LFB is a bad idea and the questionable benefits do not outweigh the risks of getting it wrong on the street.

      Actually, this whole topic is probably the most well debated yet misunderstood car related topic on the net.

  • avatar

    in an interesting coincidence, I caught a few minutes of a ‘Car Talk’ rerun on NPR yesterday. A middle-age woman had called in to ask why someone would left-foot brake. And after making a wisecrack about the driver invariably being an older gentleman wearing a hat, they talked briefly about how some older folks will do this as a precaution because they’re aware that their reaction times have faded. they ‘cover’ the brake like your driving instructor commanded you to do in high school, but end up just riding it.

    so i have to wonder, when people see a white town car moving through traffic slowly with the brakes on, are they surprised you’re not an old guy with a hat?

    i have no experience driving an automatic car on track, but every kart track i’ve done, you have to left foot brake. but then they aren’t shifted so it is in a sense an automatic.

    • 0 avatar

      My grandmother was a left foot brake dragger. She always told me it was because when she learned to drive, automatic transmissions were basically non-existent, so when they became popular she didn’t know what to do with her left foot so she used it for the brake instead of the clutch. She had a bit of the little old lady from Pasadena thing going on, she was quite the speed demon. Around 1970 she rolled her Montego on it’s roof and still holds one of the speeding ticket high scores of the entire family. Maybe she was left foot braking for faster lap times to the post office.

  • avatar

    Another good time to left-foot brake is when you are trying to keep a car idling despite a messed up carburetor. Feather the throttle with the right foot while controlling the car’s (hopefully) forward progress with the left foot on the brake to avoid a stall. This probably isn’t very relevant these days, but it sure was when I was trying to keep clapped-out Dodge Aspens, K-cars, Omnirizons, etc. from stalling at traffic lights in the late 1980s.

  • avatar

    Seems to me, crawling in traffic, there’s not much need for the left foot to brake at all because you can just take your right foot off the brake and let the car crawl forward…? (I can’t do this with my manual but I routinely do this when I drive an automatic.)

    • 0 avatar

      That’s what I do, and I can’t figure out why LFB is smoother in this situation.

      I also LFB in traffic just because I’m bored, which I suspect is the only real reason to do this.

  • avatar

    When karting, the only way to apply the brakes is with the left-foot, and there is no seat belt/harness to hold you back either. I mention this because I left-foot brake on the street too.

    • 0 avatar

      In a kart, your heels hold you in just fine (both of them), while you apply pedals with the front of the foot. This works because you sit with your posterior very low, and because a common kart has very little braking ability. Once karts start getting good brakes, they also grow proper harnesses.

      • 0 avatar

        Really? I’ve never seen a kart with harnesses outside of an amusement park. The F1-K Karts I drive at Mosport generate sufficient g-forces that my heels won’t do anything to keep me planted. Only a narrow seat works – and even then, not very well.

        • 0 avatar

          I’ve never seen a shifter kart or a Rotax/TAG kart with a harness. I’ve driven a few (fast) karts with disc brakes at all 4 wheels, and they don’t have harnesses. I don’t have one in my Rotax kart.

          The idea is that you don’t want to be strapped to a kart if it flips over (like a motorcycle). However, I have ridden in 9hp karts with straps, and I agree that it is much more comfortable with them on (less strain from having to brace).

  • avatar

    I left foot brake quite often. It’s particularly useful when in chaotic traffic conditions and hovering the left foot over the pedal reduces the time required to avoid that insane bicyclist or skateboarder who appeared out of nowhere.

    I also toe brake (in airplanes), arm brake (in other airplanes), heel brake (in other airplanes and on motorcycles and some tractors), and hand brake (in gliders and on motor/bicycles). This, with all combinations of left/right feet and hands.

    One does what one needs to do to get the desired effect.

  • avatar

    The really skilled of us operate our front motorcycle brake with our left foot.


  • avatar

    I use the ghetto version of CG-Lock when I autoX, as in I manually lock the belt by yanking it and raise my seat with the VW seat height adjusting thing so that it is lock in place. Works well enough to not spend the $60….

  • avatar

    I use both feet and feel it’s the best way to drive. Much better reaction time for braking and you have a better driving experience. It has saved me from a few accidents too.

  • avatar

    I was involved in a head-on collision with both cars going about 60 mph. I didn’t have time to brake. Air bags deployed, crumple zones crumpled. My only injury was a broken bone in my left foot.

  • avatar

    I’ve been driving for 40+ years. 95% of my braking is left foot.
    Panic stops are instinctively done right footed.
    I also agree those seatbelt sure seem to snap to attention when ever I brake hard, even left footed.

  • avatar

    There’s left foot BRAKING; and then there is left foot *braking*. This article doesn’t address the lower-case, more subtle application of the brakes with the left foot to help balance the car.

    In a race car, or even a street car near the limit one can use their left foot to gently apply the brakes while simultaneously accelerating or maintaining even throttle to help moderate throttle-on understeer. My Formula Ford’s steering column prevents the driver from getting their left foot across to the brake pedal to do so. A Spec Racer Ford I drove eons ago actually had a piece of sheetmetal between the clutch and brake pedals to prevent drivers from doing so.

  • avatar
    George Herbert

    I’ve LFB for a decade-plus on the road (freeways, freeway traffic, and fast and slow back country roads). I’ve had emergency or panic stops or full-on brake applications short of a full stop in all of those environments. The cars I was daily driving for those years were a 98 Mustang and an 04 RX-8, though I had serious stops in various rentals a couple of times (an Impala, a Mazda 3).

    I am a Very Tall Person – 6’4.5″, 235 lbs.

    In NO case has my being pulled forwards out of the seat been an issue, either with my body comfort or my ability to control the brake pedal force. It may happen for others, but it does not happen for me. It’s just not been a problem. My 3-point harnesses lock reliably under hard braking.

    I would have wrecked the Mustang once and the RX-8 twice had I not been able to instantly full-on brake with LFB. The incidents were all saves by inches or at most a couple of feet, and the LFB saved me ten feet of motion prior to getting the brake fully applied. The first save was the first week I was experimenting with LFB, and a full decade before the Mustang’s engine finally gave out and I got rid of it. That’s ten full years of use of that car that I owe to LFB, plus possibly my life twice.

    I can’t conclusively say that LFB saved me on the back roads incidents, but it certainly helped. I know that it helped several times I came around a blind corner to find a bicyclist in the middle of the road, unaware that they might get run over for hanging out there.

    I am very much not sure about teaching this to new drivers, but I think that tales of woe and disaster are unwarranted. I will shortly be on my way home and my left foot will be over the brake when there’s traffic near or a lane change or on/offramp. It HAS saved me, and not once threatened my recovery or saves.

  • avatar

    ” Some of the readers disagreed with me. You’re just wrong, damn it.” Hear! Hear!

    This article was written before I started wasting time here, but I whole heartedly agree with Jack on left braking with automatics.

    I learned to do this with the auto shifted cars my mother always bought in the late fifties and early sixties. I bought my new 73′ Opel Manta with an autobox to explore the issue further and to be able to concentrate more on the corner line and vehicle dynamics in a corner without additionally dealing with heal and toeing and shifting. At the time, I was also a big supporter of Hap Sharp and Jim Hall’s auto shifting Chaparrals. That sweet handling Opel taught me a lot about how to get around a corner efficiently.

    As far as street driving goes, I still left brake, smoothly, but my goal in driving on the street, is to use very little brake at all, driving with the throttle and using the brake to hold your position at a stop. Same flying an airplane.

    Efficient driving on the street, is all about paying attention and speed management for the situation through the throttle. Somebody constantly using the brakes, drives me nuts and displays bad driving habits which leads to a lot of other issues. Hard emergency braking, means for the most part, that your not looking, thoroughly, way down the road, resulting in inefficient habits and unsafe use of a motor vehicle.

  • avatar

    I have always LFB. Even the advanced course I took in the Army OK’ed it.

  • avatar

    I always left foot brake. When I’m on the freeway, or not in a situation that I anticipate the possible need to slow quickly, my left foot rests on the floorboard to the left of the pedal such that if I suddenly feel I need to anticipate needing to use the brake I can roll my foot on the heel and be ready.
    Then I I have my foot at a diagonal position to the pedal, requiring extra force to press the pedal (my car is a 2002 so this doesn’t even illuminate the lights. On newer cars with super touchy brakes, my foot remains on the floor and the rolling is still faster than taking my foot off the gas and putting on the brake.
    As for the shift of my body during hard braking,after 216k miles my seat has partially collapsed or I have it in such a setting that when I do feel that pressure, my body is held back by my thighs, not my foot so that problem doesn’t exist with me it would seem. Even stopping quickly when a dear jumped out in front of me, the weight shift didn’t affect my ability to apply the brakes efficiently.

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