You’re driving along a sunny, leafy street near your home where kids play all the time. You’re being extra careful, when all of a sudden, a young boy runs into the street chasing his flyaway ball. Your brakes screech as you hit them hard and fast, and the boy gives you a sheepish look as he runs back to the safety of the sidewalk, ball in hand. Thank goodness for working brakes.
Although every aspect of your car should be working for optimal performance and a safe ride, the brakes are of particular importance, as they can be the most acutely responsible for accidents. If the brakes are not working properly, you may have no control over the car’s ability to stop, which can be very scary and result in a pretty serious accident. Something like windshield wipers not in proper working order must be dealt with, but is not an emergency, whereas brakes are top priority, and you shouldn’t drive unless they’re in perfect working order.
How do brake systems work? Most cars these days work with a hydraulic system that puts pressure on discs that are on the wheels to prevent them from turning. When you press on your brake pedal, it triggers rotors, or padded clamps, to squeeze on the disc. This produces a friction that slows the wheels, or stops them completely. Trouble can begin when the pads get worn thin and can’t produce the friction necessary to slow or stop the brake.
So what should smooth, working brakes feel like? When you press gently on the brakes, you feel the car gently slowing down along with the pressure. Anti-lock brakes may produce a pulsing in the pedal if you stop abruptly, but otherwise if should feel smooth, engaged, and should not emit any noise.
What are the signs of brakes in trouble? You’ll usually notice something is off even without any prior experience, whether there’s an associated noise or a feeling in the pedal. Often, there’s a wear indicator on the pad that makes a light squeal when the pad has become too thin. That’s an excellent signal to get them changed before trouble starts. If you don’t hear that, when the pads get really thin or the pads have worn out completely, you’ll hear or feel a grinding sound or vibration as the metal hits the disc with nothing in between to soften the impact. This is a situation you want to avoid even more so because not only will your safety be compromised, but the metal pieces can get damaged through the impact, and it will cost more to fix them than to do the simple brake pad change originally needed.
Another possible scenario is when the car feels like it’s being pulled to the right or the left side when you’re braking. While this can signal an issue with the alignment or other systems in the car, it may indicate a problem with the brakes. Whatever the source, this is a symptom that requires immediate attention.
Yet another problem could be diagnosed if the brake pedal pulses, or the steering wheel pulses when you step on the brakes. As mentioned earlier, this is normal for anti-lock brakes when stopping short, but it’s not normal for regular, soft braking. The probable cause for either of these is uneven rotor surfaces, which can have multiple causes, one being what we said about not having your brake pads changed in due time. Other reasons could be excessive heat, or the cooling and heating that the rotors undergo all the time while you’re driving, which eventually warps the rotors. This is a wear and tear issue that can be addressed with rotor resurfacing.
While it’s often tempting to ignore problems you notice that don’t cause immediate trouble, with brakes, it’s not worth taking the risk. Most of the issues mentioned here are simple, quick and not too expensive to fix. Get it checked out and drive safe.
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