Top 3 Signs Your Brakes Are Done

by Josh Sadlier
Judging by the number of near-rear-endings we witness on our morning commutes, the typical attitude toward brake maintenance appears to be, “Brakes: Don’t let them stop you!" Which puzzles us, because monitoring your braking system’s health is one of the most straightforward aspects of car ownership. You do have to know what to look for, though, or rather, what to listen and feel for. So let us, uh, break it down for you. Here are the top three signs that your brakes need fixing.

Brake Judder

Many drivers, especially those accustomed to older vehicles, believe that literally shaky braking is par for the course. Well, it is—if your rotors are messed up. Let’s start from the beginning. The rotor is the shiny pizza-cutter-looking thing that you can see through your spokes if you’ve got alloy wheels. It basically provides a smooth, friction-happy surface for the caliper to squeeze the brake pads (one on each side of the rotor) against. You may not have them in back if you’ve got a front-wheel-drive car, but you’ve definitely got them in front. As rotors age, their surfaces become uneven, which compromises the pad-rotor connection during braking. Result? Your car gets the shakes (a.k.a. “judder") and loses stopping power, especially when you’re scrubbing off speed on the highway. Now, your mechanic may offer to resurface or “turn" your rotors when this problem crops up, which can be effective—but only if your rotors haven’t already been sanded down to the minimum thickness. To be sure, ask your technician what the minimum rotor thickness is for your car’s brakes, and verify that your resurfaced rotors would meet this requirement. If they won’t, prepare to get new rotors, but know that you’re making a crucial investment in the safety of yourself and those around you.

Pedal Softness

Brake pedal
For the most part, new cars offer firm brake pedals with good initial bite, while older cars have softer, bite-deficient pedals. That’s because, in all likelihood, the older cars need new brake pads. Think of it this way: the less compound there is on a pair of brake pads, the harder the caliper has to squeeze the pads against the disc to achieve the same effect. So as your brake pads disintegrate, your pedal will have to do more and more work. Now, before all you backyard mechanics out there have a mutiny, yes, it could instead be time to bleed the brakes—i.e., purge pesky air-bubbles from the brake lines. But in our experience, it’s much more common to find that worn pads are what’s behind a spongy pedal. So, with your technician’s blessing, have some new pads installed and see if that restores the old firmness to the brake pedal. Alternatively, sit tight with your current pads and wait for…

The Most Annoying Sound in the World

Remember in Dumb and Dumber when Jim Carrey's character says, “Eeeeeeeeeennngghhhh"? If you wait long enough to replace your brake pads, they’ll make pretty much the same grating high-pitched noise when they’re on their way out. Why? Because there’s a sharp little metal tab on each pad that’s designed to make contact with the rotor once the pad compound has nearly worn away. The sound is so horrific that most people immediately think something must be catastrophically broken—but since you’re reading this article, you know that it’s really just a friendly reminder to swap out those brake pads. Don’t delay, however, as that little metal thing damages your rotors with every squeal. You want to get the new pads ASAP; otherwise, you might scrape up perfectly serviceable rotors and be forced to replace those as well. 

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