Your vehicle’s entire brake system will wear out over time. That includes brake pads, brake rotors, and brake calipers. It also depends on your driving patterns.
Every part of your brake system will have to be replaced at some point. The key is in doing so before it puts you in danger.
Understanding brake wear
Stop to think for a moment how many times your brakes are used in any given year. According to one study, the average driver uses their brakes around 75,000 times in a year! That’s a lot of braking.
Vehicular accidents occur for a variety of reasons. Brake failure is cause for only about 5 percent of total accidents per year. But considering there were 6.5 million police-reported motor vehicle crashes, that still equates to around 325,000 accidents due to problems with the braking system.
All parts of the braking system wear out over time, but brake wear depends on a variety of factors, including:
Brake pad hardness – brake pads come in several varieties made up of several different compounds. They are created and installed, depending on a car’s needs. For most urban driving, brake pads are made from a softer compound that does well driving around town, but does begin to break down in more performance-like settings. If you go with performance brake pads, the material is harder and made to last longer, but they don’t perform as well under most urban driving conditions.
Materials – because brake pads are made up of different compounds, they wear differently over time. The same applies to the brake rotor. Carbon-ceramic brakes, for example, will last longer than a standard metal brake, but they need to be warmer to be more effective. That can be a problem here in Colorado. Steel or metal brakes are better for our Front Range driving conditions, and handle well throughout the year.
Driving conditions – even here in the Denver metro area, we all drive differently. Some people rarely drive more than a ten mile radius, staying close to home almost all the time for work and play. Others travel up into the mountains many weekends a year. Some people are defensive drivers, braking abruptly throughout their commutes, while others prefer smooth, gradual braking and allow plenty of room between them and the car in front of them. Some spend their days driving from stoplight to stoplight, while others drive mostly on the highway. All of this impacts how your brakes wear and how long they will last.
How do you know when to replace your brakes?
Brakes aren’t something you’ll regularly replace like motor oil or even your tires. The best way rule of thumb is to pay attention to your vehicle’s manufacturer guidelines. Most mechanics will tell you that brake pads, in general, will last around 50,000 miles. Of course, all of the wearability factors from above go into that. It’s not unusual for cars to come in and need a brake job at 25,000, while others can push the envelope and wait until closer to 75,000 miles. It depends on a variety of things.
Luckily, it’s not all based on mileage. There isn’t a magical number in which you have to show up and have your brakes replaced. You can watch for warning signs.
Brake pad thickness – brake pad thickness will wear down over time. Inspect them regularly. If you have your tires rotated (and you should), or go in for an oil change, the mechanic can take a look and tell you the condition of your brake pads.
Squealing noise – you can’t miss the sound of a brake pad that’s reaching end of life. It makes a metallic squealing noise to let you know the end is near. Brake pads have small metal pieces built into the bottom of the brake pad for that very reason. When those surface, it’s basically metal against metal, grinding away to tell you something is wrong.
Pulling and vibration – does it feel like your car pulls to one side while braking? Do you feel a vibration when you step on the brake pedal? All can be feedback from your braking system. In some cases, it might be the rotors are warped. It can also be a vehicle that’s out of alignment. When you feel either of these, your safest bet is to have a mechanic check out your brake system and fix the problem.
Whenever your brakes are worn out or lose performance, it’s time to replace them. Good, functional brakes are the key to keeping you and your family safe.
What to do when brake failure happens
While it’s important to keep your brakes in good working condition, occasionally brakes fail. As a driver, you should understand what to do if that happens.
Your first step is to determine if you have standard brakes or antilock brakes. The easiest way to tell is to watch your dashboard when you start the car. An ABS will light up if you have antilock brakes.
If standard brakes go out, you’ll come to a stop doing three things.
First, downshift to a lower gear. Next, pump the brakes fast and hard to create a buildup of brake fluid. If you haven’t noticed a change after four or five pumps, locate the parking brake and pull up. Do it gradually and be prepared for the car to skid.
If you still can’t stop the car, put the car into a low gear and steer it towards safety. It will eventually roll to a stop. Of course, living here in the Rocky Mountains, that can also be a problem coming down large hills. In that case, if you’re traveling at highway speeds, you might have to use the guard rail as a buffer. Steer so you scrape gently against it to slow your speed. Honk and flash your lights to alert other drivers to your problem.
If you have antilock brakes, you’ll push the pedal all the way to the floor and allow the ABS to do the pulsing for you. If none of it works, you’ll perform the same steps as above.
This doesn’t happen that often, but it’s still a good idea to practice skid situations in a safe environment. Use your parking brake to get a good feel for how your car handles in a variety of situations.
When was the last time your brakes were replaced?