How quickly can your vehicle stop? Five brake warning signs

by Tony Molla, ASE Master Technician

A vehicle’s braking system is easy to ignore—until it doesn’t work properly. Can your vehicle respond quickly if child suddenly runs into the street or the car in front of you makes an evasive maneuver?

Vehicle problems often sneak up slowly, and brake wear may become a critical safety issue by the time you realize there is a problem. 

One way to avoid expensive repairs is to look for signs that your braking system needs a little TLC. 

For instance, most vehicles have some sort of built-in warning signal when your brakes need attention. Some have wear indicators built into the pads, which will cause a "chirping" sound when you apply the brakes if the pads need replacement.

Other vehicles illuminate a brake warning light when the brakes wear to a certain point.

Does your brake pedal go down a little farther than usual or touch the baseboard? That’s a sure sign that something is amiss. 

Or perhaps you hear a grinding noise or unusually loud squeaking when braking. If you press on the brake pedal and hear a terrible metal-on-metal screeching, get your brake system serviced immediately. 

The sound generally indicates that brake pads are completely worn and scratching against expensive rotors. As the wheels turn, continued scraping can turn into expensive rotor replacement.

Get your brakes checked periodically when you bring your vehicle in for routine maintenance. On vehicles with disc brakes, there is an inspection window in the rear of each caliper where you can see how much friction material is left on the pads. This can be checked visually during a normal tire rotation.

How do you know what kind of brake service to do? Some services offer brake pads, others say “complete brake service.” What’s the difference?

A simple brake pad replacement is relatively easy and inexpensive—just replacing or lubricating the attendant brake hardware. 

A "complete brake service" usually ranges from minor maintenance or major component replacement and resurfacing of the rotors or brake drums.

Just remember to look for the five most common signs that it’s time to have your vehicle brake system inspected:

1. Some vehicles illuminate a brake warning light when the brakes wear to a certain point.

2. Does your brake pedal go down a little farther than usual or touch the baseboard? That’s a sure sign that something is amiss. 

3. Listen for a grinding noise or unusually loud squeaking when braking. If you press on the brake pedal and hear a terrible metal-on-metal screeching, get your brake system serviced immediately. 

The sound generally indicates that brake pads are completely worn and scratching against expensive rotors. As the wheels turn, continued scraping can turn into expensive rotor replacement.

4. Another common sign of brake problems is stopping distance. Does your vehicle take longer to come to a complete stop than it did several months ago?

5. Does your vehicle pull to one side or the other anytime you slow for a stop, especially at high speeds? Could be caused by a frozen brake caliper. This may be more pronounced at higher road speeds.

Ignoring any sign of a brake problem puts you and your passengers at risk. It also results in a larger than necessary repair bill to replace components like brake rotors or even expensive brake calipers. When in doubt, check it out.