How to Spot Failing Brakes

The problem with brake failure is that it can be hard to diagnose. Wear and tear on brake discs and pads can’t always be seen very easily, but there are other ways to diagnose issues. 

Read on to find out how brakes work, what signs of wear to look out for, the important warning signs of brake system problems – plus some tips for helping prolong the life of your brakes. 

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How Brakes Work

Commonly you’ll find two types of brake systems: disc brakes and drum brakes.

Disc brakes are often found on modern cars’ front wheels, and are made up of a shiny disc behind the wheel, and a gripping clamp known as a brake caliper, which includes brake pads. Pads are made of  a hard wearing material that presses against the brake disc, slowing it down using friction.

Drum brakes are fitted within the hollow hub of the back wheels, and an internal brake ‘shoe’ pushes outwardly against the drum to slow down the vehicle.

Both types use friction to decelerate, between the disc or drum and a hard-wearing heat-resistant material such as composite steel and resin on the brake pad or shoe.

Brake pads are made to withstand extreme heat and wear from pushing against the disc, but no brake pads (yet!) last forever. Brake pads will need replacing when they get worn down to unsafe levels.

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How to Spot When Brakes Are Getting Worn

There are several signs that your brakes are getting worn and may need replacing soon. These include:

Squealing or grinding brakes

If you hear a grinding or squeaking when you brake, it's likely that your brake pads have worn away and need replacing. Other tell-tale signs of problems include clicking (spring problems) and pulsating (warped rotor or drum), and these should be checked by an expert as soon as possible.

Any unusual changes in the way your car drives

Anything out of the ordinary in the way your vehicle drives can mean issues that need resolving, and with brakes, signs include spongy or light brakes  or an increased stopping distance, which can be an early indicator of brake system problems. 

Surface pitting or corrosion on the brake disc

Visible pitting, rust or corrosion on the brake discs or drums are not good signs that your brakes will live long and prosper.

Juddering brake pedal / “distortion”

Friction creates heat on the disc and pads and can wear the disc unevenly, meaning when you press the brake pedal you might feel juddering. This may also cause the pads to wear away more quickly.

Wave on the edge of the brake disc / “run out”

If the brake disc isn’t fitted tight and flat to the wheel, you’ll experience a similar juddering effect to distortion, and this will also wear your brakes more quickly.

Further Brake System Warning Signs

Car steering/pulling to the right or left

If your car shakes or pulls to one side when you are braking, it can mean that your brake pads are worn unevenly, or that you have a leak of brake fluid. Never ignore these signs, and make sure you get to a garage as soon as you can for a brake system check.

Sluggish acceleration

If your car suddenly is very sluggish pulling away, it might mean that your brakes haven’t released properly. Driving with the brakes clamped on like this will damage your brakes and discs, so it’s essential to get this sorted straight away.

A loud screeching sound of metal on metal or “scoring”

This loud and shocking sound could mean that the brake pad has completely worn away – so the sound you hear is metal scraping on metal. This will have a big effect on the ability to slow down your car, so don’t wait to get the brake system checked.

ABS warning light

Anti-lock braking systems will tell you when there’s a problem, by appearing as a warning light on your dashboard. Easy!

Spongy brakes can mean a problem with brake fluid

If you notice your brakes are very ‘spongy’ or less responsive, or the brake pedal feels heavier or lighter than usual to push down, this is a potential sign that there’s a problem with the brake fluid. Brake fluid controls the braking pressure created when you press the brake pedal, and a leak or vapourised brake fluid will stop your brakes working properly in no time.

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Hints and Tips for Improving Brake System Life

  • Replace brake fluid every two years to make sure it’s is as effective as possible.
  • Avoid braking heavily for long periods by adjusting your driving style, which can also help improve your fuel economy.
  • Be aware that using your brakes while driving at higher speeds puts more wear on your brakes than you would if you were driving more slowly.
  • Look ahead – allowing the friction of the road to slow your car down naturally as you approach a junction, or part of the road popular for people to brake heavily, means less slamming on of the brakes for you!
  • Never use your left foot to brake. Pressing the brake and accelerator at the same time – even accidentally – does no favours at all for your brakes.
  • Shed the excess baggage – lighten any unnecessary load and your brakes will have an easier job of slowing the car down.
  • It’s sensible to help prolong the life of your brakes with these tips. However, don’t let them stop you repairing your brakes when replacements are needed – or you’ll potentially end up spending more in the long run.