The condition of a driven shaft spinning faster than its driveshaft exists in most bicycles when the rider holds his or her feet still, no longer pushing the pedals. In a fixed-gear bicycle, without a freewheel, the rear wheel would drive the pedals around.
An analogous condition exists in an automobile with a manual transmission going downhill, or any situation where the driver takes his or her foot off the gas pedal, closing the throttle; the wheels want to drive the engine, possibly at a higher RPM. In a two-stroke engine this can be a catastrophic situation: as many two stroke engines depend on a fuel/oil mixture for lubrication, a shortage of fuel to the engine would result in a shortage of oil in the cylinders, and the pistons would seize after a very short time causing extensive engine damage. Saab used a freewheel system in their two-stroke models for this reason and maintained it in the Saab 96 V4 and early Saab 99 for better fuel efficiency.
The simplest freewheel device consists of two saw-toothed, spring-loaded discs pressing against each other with the toothed sides together, somewhat like a ratchet. Rotating in one direction, the saw teeth of the drive disc lock with the teeth of the driven disc, making it rotate at the same speed. If the drive disc slows down or stops rotating, the teeth of the driven disc slip over the drive disc teeth and continue rotating, producing a characteristic clicking sound proportionate to the speed difference of the driven gear relative to that of the (slower) driving gear.
A more sophisticated and rugged design has spring-loaded steel rollers inside a driven cylinder. Rotating in one direction, the rollers lock with the cylinder making it rotate in unison. Rotating slower, or in the other direction, the steel rollers just slip inside the cylinder.
Most bicycle freewheels use an internally step-toothed drum with two or more spring-loaded, hardened steel pawls to transmit the load. More pawls help spread the wear and give greater reliability although, unless the device is made to tolerances not normally found in bicycle components, simultaneous engagement of more than two pawls is rarely achieved.