10 Ways Your Car Is Telling You It Needs Brake Service

Brakes are often overlooked and taken for granted until a significant problem arises. When it comes to the most important safety mechanism on your vehicle, letting problems slide until that system no longer functions properly is a recipe for disaster. Don’t ignore the warning signs of impending brake failure—keep your braking system functioning at its peak performance level. The following is a list of the top 10 warning signs that your vehicle needs brake service.

1 – Spongy brake pedal

A soft, spongy feel in the brake pedal is a sure sign of a problem in the hydraulic system. It can be caused by issues such as air in the lines, failing calipers or wheel cylinders, or a weak flex line. Your brake pedal should be firm, and the brakes should feel solid and be applied gradually. When the pedal is soft and spongy, your braking system isn’t functioning at 100 percent. The problem could be as simple as not having enough fluid in the master cylinder.

2 – Hard brake pedal

If the brake pedal is hard to push, the problem is most likely in the power assist mechanism. There are two types of power assists—vacuum and hydraulic. Most cars and trucks use a vacuum booster to provide braking assistance so that the driver doesn’t have to exert as much effort on the brake pedal. Some heavier trucks and certain turbocharged vehicles use what is called a hydroboost instead of a vacuum to do the same thing. A hydroboost uses hydraulic pressure from the power steering pump to assist the braking function. When these systems go down, the brake pedal is hard to push, but the braking system is otherwise functional. If the brakes do not work and the pedal is hard, then there is likely a mechanical issue between the pedal and the master cylinder, such as an obstruction or a broken connecting rod.

Power assist failures in vacuum systems are typically caused by a loss of vacuum power (disconnected, split, or blocked vacuum line) or a tear in the diaphragm of the brake booster. Hydraulic boosters can seize internally, leak, or run out of fluid. If the rest of the steering system is functioning normally but the hydraulic brake booster is not, then the booster itself is likely the culprit.

3 – Fluid leaks

Loose fittings, worn seals, and split hoses not only make a mess, but can also seriously reduce your braking power.

Hydraulic systems are complex, with lots of lines running to their various components, especially in vehicles with ABS. A leak in any one of these many connections will lead to a loss of fluid and air in the system. Eventually, the braking system will fail altogether. The most common leak-prone areas are the wheels and the rubber flex lines between the hard line and the brake calipers. In rear-wheel-drive vehicles, there is flex line that runs between the body and the rear axle as well. Brake fluid varies from clear to rusty orange, depending on age and condition. It is very thin and quite slippery, and it has a slight odour. Wet inner tires are a telltale sign of caliper/wheel cylinder leaks. Another is wrinkled paint near a brake line connection, as brake fluid damages paint. Any sign of leaking brake fluid is bad and must be repaired immediately.

4 – Grinding noises

Once you wear through the actual friction material on brake pads, you’re left with metal on metal, which is highly problematic.

If you hear noises when you hit the brake pedal, you likely have a mechanical issue with the braking system. Grinding is a metal-on-metal sound that means the brake pads/shoes are worn out and the base metal is grinding on the rotor or drum. Once you get to this point, braking performance is seriously diminished and the rotors/drums are actively being destroyed with every press of the pedal. Take your vehicle to your local NAPA AUTOPRO for brake service as soon as possible to avoid driving in unsafe conditions and causing further damage. If you’re lucky, it’ll be possible to machine and spare the rotors or drums; however, in many cases, the damage is beyond the limits of the material thickness, making replacement the only option. If you find yourself in this situation, know that the repair will require not only new pads/shoes, but also new rotors/drums. And yes, you must replace both sides at the same time.

5 – Pulling left or right

Worn rotors can result in the vehicle pulling to one side when the brakes are pressed. This is because the brakes are grabbing harder on one side. The same thing can happen if one side isn’t grabbing at all.

As you press the brake pedal, both sides of the brake system are applied equally. If there is an issue with one side, then your vehicle will pull to one side as you brake. This can sometimes be fixed with a simple adjustment, but more often, the brakes are wearing more on one side than the other. A failing wheel cylinder or caliper could be the problem. Another possibility is worn rotors eating up the pads and grabbing or slipping. This is why you should always replace brake wear components in LH/RH pairs to ensure equal braking performance.

6 – Longer braking time/distance

Brake fluid absorbs moisture from the air, which eventually degrades its performance. These test strips show you if your fluid is still good or if it needs to be changed.

If your vehicle is taking longer to stop than normal, then you are experiencing brake fade. This can be a short-term or long-term problem, depending on the cause. An example of what causes short-term fade is driving on curvy roads, such as when coming down a mountain. Riding the brakes will heat up the pads and rotors, making them less responsive. Once they cool down, they can return to their original performance, or close to it. Eventually, the fade becomes permanent, and the only solution is to replace the pads and/or rotors. An alternative to riding the brakes in these situations is to downshift the transmission and let the engine slow the vehicle.

7 – Vibrations

When brakes have been heated up too much, the rotors can develop hot spots, which, when cooled, contract more than the rest of the rotor. The result is a warped brake rotor. Once this occurs, every application of the brakes sends pulses through the brake pedal or steering wheel. These vibrations can also be a sign of poor steering alignment, so you should schedule a brake service appointment with your NAPA AUTOPRO centre to get the problem checked out. In best-case scenarios, the rotor can be turned and made true again. Otherwise, it has to be replaced to get rid of the shake.

8 – Drag under acceleration

A dragging brake shoe on the drum can lead to reduced performance in all aspects—acceleration, cruising, and braking. The drum in the image had two grooves worn into it.

Does the engine rev when you hit the gas, but your vehicle doesn’t pull away as fast is should? The problem could be a caliper or drum hanging up. If you let off the gas (after reaching 55 km/h or so) and the vehicle slows down much faster than it normally does, this is a sure sign of a braking issue. Road grime buildup and faulty caliper/wheel cylinders are typically the cause.

9 – Odd smell

If you smell a funky burning odour when you hit the brakes, you have a problem. Overheated brakes not only smell bad, they’re a dangerous situation. If your brakes are smoking, you’re burning the friction lining. Overheated pads and shoes develop a slick glaze on the surface, which greatly reduces braking performance. This is a component of brake fade, discussed above.

10 – Warning lights

Anytime the brake warning light comes on, you need to pay attention. There are two brake lights—the main system and the ABS system. ABS components can fail and allow the rest of the system to function normally, but the main brake warning light signals that the vehicle has most likely experienced a failure in the hydraulic system and needs to be serviced immediately.

This list covers the most common signs of an impending brake failure. In the event your brakes give out without warning, follow these steps to stop your vehicle:

  • Don’t panic. Take a breath, calm down, and focus. You can’t do anything if you panic.
  • Pump the brakes. If the pedal suddenly goes to the floor, there’s likely a broken line. Pump the brakes repeatedly. Most vehicles have separate front and rear systems, so a broken line on one half doesn’t necessarily affect the other. Pumping the brakes can build up pressure in the system, allowing the brakes to work.
  • Downshift. Let the engine do most of the work. If the brakes have failed, you need to get off the road. Downshift through the gears to reduce your speed so that you can slow down and try to come to a stop.
  • E-brake. Unless you have to, don’t just yank the handle or stomp on the emergency brake, as this will lock up the rear brakes send you into a spin if you’re at speed. Instead, use the emergency brake to scrub off speed gradually. A hand brake is better for this, but it all depends on your vehicle. If you’re moving slower than 48 km/h or so, a full application of the emergency brake is less likely to send the vehicle into a spin.
  • Use controlled swerving. To scrub off speed, you can use the steering wheel to swerve the car from side to side, slowly and deliberately. Don’t just yank the wheel left and right; that will cause a wreck. Weave back and forth in a controlled manner until you get the vehicle to slow down. You can then make harder turns to bring it to a stop. 

If you’re in a runaway vehicle, turn on your flashers and honk your horn to alert other drivers that you’re in an emergency situation. Most brake failures occur quickly and in situations where you need to stop immediately. Practising the steps above will help you remain calm and slow your vehicle as much as possible before you have a collision. It may even help you avoid a wreck altogether.

Having to fix a brake failure after ignoring the warning signs will generally cost you much more than conducting proper maintenance. The braking system is the number one safety mechanism on your vehicle. Pay attention to potential problems—it’ll be easier on your wallet and may even save your life.

Jefferson Bryant