Here’s a driving nightmare: You’re in stop-and-go traffic on the interstate, and suddenly, you’re less stop and more go. You rear-end the car in front of you, causing irritating bumper damage to both of you and, embarrassingly, a pile-up on the highway that has passing motorists behind you scowling and honking. A lot. What happened?
Your brakes happened. They’re failing, and as bad as your situation is, it’s a really good thing you found out about the problem while traveling at only 3 miles an hour.
Brake Warning Signs
Thin brakes pads
Brakes pads squeeze against a rotor located in the front wheels, providing the friction that stops your car. If they’re too thin, they can’t squeeze with enough force to brake your car properly. Luckily, you can do a visual inspection and spot thin brake pads. Look between the spokes in your wheel; the pad is a flat metal plate. If it looks less than ¼” thick, it’s time to take the car in.
A small metal piece called an indicator is designed to make a really irritating noise when your brake pads are wearing out. If you’ve ever heard a high-pitched screech as you depress the brake pedal, you’ve probably heard the indicator’s warning cry. (Rust over your brake pads may also cause this noise, but it’s hard to tell the difference, so you should assume the worst.) As soon as you hear the indicator, make an appointment for an inspection.
This one’s simple; if your brakes aren’t working well, they’re failing. You’ll feel this in the brake pedal itself, because it will depress further than normal toward the floor before your car stops. This may indicate a leak in your brake system, either an air leak from the hose or a fluid leak from the brake lines.
Your brake pedal can talk to you in other ways; if it begins to vibrate, especially at times when the anti-lock brake system is not engaged, it’s time to make an appointment. This is probably (though not always) a sign of warped rotors, which may need “turning,” a process by which they are evened.
Puddles on the driveway
A small puddle underneath your car may be another sign of a leaking brake line. Touch the fluid; it looks and feels similar to fresh motor oil, but it’s less slippery. If you suspect your brake fluid is leaking, take your car for service immediately. This problem will compound quickly as you lose more fluid.
Sometimes you’ll feel your car try to move off to the side of the road when you brake. If braking doesn’t produce even results on both sides of your car, your brake pads may be wearing unevenly, or there may be a blockage in your brake fluid line.
Loud metallic sounds
If your brakes start to sound like an ornery old man, watch out! Grinding or growling sounds are serious trouble. They occur when your brake pads are completely worn out, and they indicate damage to the rotor. Unless you catch the problem quickly, your rotor may need an expensive repair, so drive your car right in to the shop!
Two warning lights on your car may indicate brake problems. One is the anti-lock brake light, indicated by a red “ABS” inside a circle. If this light comes on, there may be a problem with one of the anti-lock brake sensors. You can’t fix this problem on your own. If the light stays on, take the car in.
The second is your brake light. On some cars, this is simply the word ‘Brake;’ on some, it is an exclamation point within two brackets. Sometimes this light indicates a simple issue with your parking brake, which may be engaged while you’re driving. This one’s an easy fix. However, if the light stays on, it may indicate a more severe problem: an issue with your brake fluid. The hydraulic pressure that activates your brakes may be uneven, or the brake fluid may be low. These problems can be dangerous, so if your brake light stays on, make a service appointment.
One note: if both the brake light and the ABS light come and stay on, stop driving your car! This indicates imminent danger in both of your brake systems.
With these warning signs in mind, you can keep your brakes ship-shape and minimize your collision risk on the road.