Signs Your Car Needs an Immediate Brake System Check

Nobody likes to think about having a complete brake job down on their car, truck, or SUV. But what is even less pleasant to consider is a situation where your car brakes fail while you drive.

I had my brakes fail once and it was like a scene from a very bad action movie. Headed downhill, moving fast, during very busy rush hour traffic, I ended up doing lots of evasive maneuvers – not to mention a fair amount of both praying and cursing. Somehow, I managed to avoid hitting other cars or pedestrians as I strategically swerved into an uphill graveyard entrance where the darned car finally came to a stop. It was not an experience I would like to repeat. Since then, I’ve been careful about brake maintenance and watching for the signs of impending brake failure.

What are the symptoms of brake failure? They can differ, depending on the type of brake system you have. As you read them, understand that you don’t win a prize if you wait until your brakes display all the signs of failure before you do something about them. Get them at least properly checked when you see the first symptom.

Signs of auto brake problems include:

-the brake pedal just keeps dropping lower which is a good sign that there is less there to offer resistance
-the brake pedal feels very soft or spongy or requires you to pump it
-it takes longer to get a response from the brakes (a bad sign if there ever is one)
-serious noise when you apply your brakes
-perceptible vibration as you apply the brake pedal
-grabbing or pulling as you push the brake pedal

If you experience one or more of these symptoms, you should get your car, truck, or SUV to a qualified garage or trusted independent mechanic as soon as possible. Do not delay this because none of these symptoms is apt to improve miraculously on their own. If anything, such problems will get worse; some of them will worsen quickly.

Yet none of these symptoms, either singly or in groups, necessarily means your complete brake system is about to fail. Instead, just one or two components within the brake system may need repair or replacement. This is something best evaluated by a professional mechanic rather than a weekend amateur.

Why shouldn’t you, if motivated, tackle a brake job yourself? One big reason is that the brake system, by its very nature, is integral to the safe operation of your vehicle. You can’t afford to do a bad brake job.

Another reason this is best left to the pros is that brake work can be difficult, time-consuming, require special tools, and usually involves advanced knowledge of the brake system and its components that relatively few amateurs may have. While we’ve done it ourselves and did a good job, it took more than two days to complete the work.

Also, as mentioned, you may not need to replace every part of the brake system to restore your brakes to proper operation. Unless you have the expertise to spot a worn brake lining or a damaged brake drum or shoe, you may misdiagnose the brake as fine or replace the whole system unnecessarily.

But when you go to the pros to have your brakes checked, you need to watch what you buy. For example, you often see ads for brake jobs that can sound extraordinarily low. Get into the garage, however, and you discover the low price does not apply to you. Most brake jobs advertised at less than $100 offer brake relining and a full system check but not complete replacement. Other car care centers may advertise $49.95 specials that cover front brakes only.

The garage is not necessarily ripping you off either; look closely at what the ad states. In fact, no garage can tell you what a brake job for your car will cost until a mechanic does a thorough diagnostic review.

A full brake replacement can run several hundred dollars depending on your brake system, its condition, and the make and model of your vehicle. Because of this cost, it makes even more sense to get a small symptom with your brakes checked immediately rather than wait until multiple components fail.

How frequently do you need brake work done? Check your vehicle owner manual, although your results often depend both on your road conditions as well as the way you drive. If you’re someone who drives in a way that you don’t need to hard brake frequently, your brakes will tend to last far longer than someone who rides the brake pedal like a Sunday driver out watching the leaves turn color. Likewise, city drivers may need repairs sooner than someone who mostly travels on long stretches of highway.

Brake linings – the sandpaper like material which line the brake structure on each wheel that actually helps stop the wheel when you press the brake pedal – may last up to 75,000 to 80,000 miles. Yet they can also show significant signs of wear at just 30,000 to 40,000 miles.

Linings are the most frequent part to wear, but other components may need replacement as well. Also, you may be able to get away with just replacing the front brakes if the rear brakes are in good shape, or vice versa. To determine what you need, you need to consult your mechanic or garage.

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