The braking system on your car is probably something you don’t think much about. You get in. You drive. And when you press down on the brake pedal, you slow down and eventually come to a stop.
What if they didn’t work?
Like everything on your vehicle, brakes have a limited lifespan. The various components wear down a little each time you use them, and eventually become so worn they need repair or replacement.
How big a risk is brake failure?
Why brakes fail
When you press down on your brake pedal, that pressure is transferred into the brake lines. Brake fluid transmits that pressure to the brakes themselves, which ultimately causes you to slow down and come to a stop.
There are two different kinds of brakes on vehicles today: drum and disc. In both, the pressure from the brake lines pushes the drum or disk against the wheel itself to slow it down.
Brakes can fail from a variety of events, but in general, can be lumped into two categories.
A leaky brake line – this is when a leak forms somewhere in the brake line. Brake fluid slowly drains from the system until there isn’t enough left to move pressure from the brake pedal to the tires.
Worn out disc or drum – this is when one or more parts to the brake system itself wear out. If brake pads, shoes, rotors, or any other part of the drum or disc brake system wear down enough to prevent proper friction on the wheels to stop them, you’re at risk.
Brake failure – quick or slow?
The good news is that car manufacturers have built a series of safety features into every system on your vehicle, to alert you of potentially dangerous situations long before they occur. As problems arise within the braking system, you’ll be alerted by a change in the way your brakes handle, a noise when you press on the brake pedal, or even a change in the way your car handles. If you step on the brake pedal and it feels spongy or pulls to one side, it’s a sign you have a problem with the brakes. Schedule an appointment with one of our mechanics as soon as possible to avoid further damage and increased risk.
Brake pads – the most common problem
While multiple things can potentially go wrong within your braking system, in most cases, you’ll replace the brake pads more frequently than any other part of the system.
Brake pads will last around 40,000 miles on average, while brake rotors can last as much as three times as long. Why? Brake pads are responsible for bringing your car to a stop. When you press down on the brake pedal, it’s the brake pad that presses up against the rotor, slowing down the wheel in the process. Eventually, this material will wear down, leaving only the metal baking in place.
While 40,000 is a rough estimate, many things can alter how many miles you’ll receive on each set of brake pads you install.
- Do you drive mostly on the highway or in town?
- Do you frequently ride the brakes?
- Are you an aggressive driver, often pouncing on the brake pedal?
- Who manufactured your brake pads?
Brake pads are made of frictional material bonded to a metal backing plate. Brake pads are typically made from one of three different materials:
Organic – most vehicles on the road today use organic brake pads. They are also known as NAO pads, or non-asbestos organic pads. These pads are made of materials such as carbon, fiber, glass, rubber, and sometimes Kevlar mixed with resins to help bond it all together. While organic pads are usually the least expensive, they also wear down faster than the other types of pads. Still, they are a good choice for average daily driving conditions.
Semi-metallic – when you purchased your vehicle, if it didn’t come with organic brake pads, there’s a good chance semi-metallic brake pads were installed instead. These are often a popular choice on trucks or larger SUVs. Semi-metallic brake pads are created from metal shavings such as copper, steel, brass, and possibly graphite. They are bound together by resin. They are best suited for more rigorous driving conditions and heavy-duty use.
Ceramic – want a brake pad somewhere in between, that offers performance as well as a comfortable ride? Ceramic brake pads may be the way to go. Ceramic brake pads are made from hard, ceramic fibers. That gives them the longest lifespan of the three types, and also the quietest ride. They handle heat very well, but instead of absorbing heat like the other brake pads, it sends it out and impacts other parts of the braking system. These are high-performance parts that can enhance your drive.
Do a brake check and stay safe
While you drive, you should monitor the way your car handles.
Before you get into your car, do a visual inspection occasionally to ensure your brakes are in good working condition. Do so with your car parked safely and the ignition off.
Look at the wheels. Do you notice brake dust on the wheel? How much? If you notice it increasing over time, it’s something you should bring up on your next visit.
On some cars, you can also see the brake pad. Notice its thickness. If it seems thin, ¼ inch or less, it may be time for replacement. Monitor this and speak with one of our mechanics on the safety of your braking system.
When you start the car and drive, listen to your brakes. Brake pads are designed with a marker that makes noise when they need to be changed. It will get louder over time, as the material on the brake pads continues to wear.
You should also pay attention to how your vehicle drives. You can often feel changes in the way the brake pedal moves and connects with the braking system.
Your car is also built with a warning system. If the brake warning light comes on at any time, have it checked sooner rather than later.
Are your brakes in good working condition?