Warning signs to check your brakes
If you've been putting off having your brakes inspected, here's a reason to schedule a visit to your mechanic: Deferred maintenance can lead to brake failure. During preventive maintenance service, your mechanic can check your brake pads, calipers, rotors and fluid to ensure your car stops safely and predictably every time. They also may flush and fill your car's brake hydraulic system following the schedule your car's manufacturer recommends.
Although brakes often give warning signs when something is wrong, those indicators may be subtle or seem unimportant. If you notice any of these red flags (many of them courtesy of Les Schwab), see your mechanic even if you're not yet due for service:
1. A reduction or change in stopping power. This is an emergency sign and means you shouldn't continue driving the car until it's checked out. An example of a potentially dangerous change includes having to push the pedal almost to the floor before your brakes engage (one possibility is loss of brake fluid, which could lead to brake failure if not fixed).
2. You hear squealing when you brake. Brakes are built with "squealers," technically called brake pad indicators, to let you know your brake pads are worn to the point that you soon could be down to metal-on-metal. That reduces your stopping power and sets you up for expensive rotor repairs. Generally, once brake pads are worn to less than one-quarter inch thickness, it's time to change them. Advance Auto Parts estimates brake pads last 40,000 to 60,000 miles depending on your car and how you drive.
Sometimes, wet brakes can squeal, too. If you hear squealing for the first time on a rainy day, see if the sound goes away on its own after a few stops. You can help keep brakes dry by avoiding standing water on the road. If you inadvertently drive through deep water, brake moderately once you're back on bare pavement to dry them out.
3. You hear a crunching or grinding sound when you brake. Some gearheads compare it to the sound of driving on frozen snow. It could mean your brake pads have indeed worn through and you're now grinding on your brake rotor. Grinding noises also could be a sign you have a rock caught in your calipers (an easy, cheap fix) or your rear brake drums may need lubrication.
4. Your car pulls to one side when you brake. This could indicate a problem with a tire or brake caliper or an alignment issue.
5. Your car shudders or the steering wheel vibrates when you brake. You may have a problem with the rotors, a caliper or even tire lug nuts that were tightened improperly.
6. "Hot brakes" smell. Pull over. Your parking brake may have been left on accidentally or your brakes could be overheated, especially if you've been descending a long hill and using the brakes a lot. Allow them to cool to avoid the risk of brake failure from overheated brake fluid. If a hill is the problem, shift to a lower gear before continuing so the engine can help slow the car rather than relying solely on the brakes. (See your owner's manual for specifics about your car and its transmission.)
If a wheel is smoking, call for a tow. The car is likely unsafe to drive without repairs.
7. Your dashboard brake light comes on. This could mean your car's electronic sensors have detected a problem.
Brakes seem like such a basic part of your car, they're easy to overlook. But like other unsung workhorse features including your car's tires, windshield and lights, their safe functioning is critical in helping you avoid an accident.
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