Learn things to watch for to know when it’s time to replace them

By Matt Hill

AAA World Article

When it comes to vehicle safety, you may not immediately think of your brakes. Yet they're a critical component of accident prevention. Because they're also a component the vehicle owner maintains themselves, regular inspections, replacement, and repair are all part of being a responsible owner. Additionally, how you drive can affect how long your brake pads last. If you only drive 8,000 miles a year but it's through crowded areas with stop-and-go traffic, you'll have to replace them more often than if you drive 30,000 miles per year across flat, open land. So, what are some of the warning signs that your brakes may need an inspection or maintenance?


Brake pad thickness can usually be checked visually. If your wheel allows it, look inside the wheel to spot the shiny metal rotor. If your view is blocked by a hub cap, you may have to remove the wheel to inspect your pads. Around the outer edge of the rotor will be your brake caliper; this houses the pads themselves. The pad will be between the caliper and the rotor. There should be at least 1/4 inch of pad there. Also, take a moment to inspect the rotor itself. Run your fingers over the surface to see if it is smooth. If you feel deep grooves or pits, your rotor may be worn and need service.


Brake pads have what is called “wear indicators.” These small strips of metal fastened to one end of the pads are designed to rub against your rotors and squeal when your pads wear down to a certain level. Don't ignore this squeal! If you do, you could be wearing away pads to the point where metal from your caliper grinds against the metal of your rotor. Not only is this a terrible way to stop your car, but it can damage the caliper or rotor themselves, amounting to an expensive repair.


If your car feels like it is pulling to one side, you may have a stuck brake caliper. Pay attention to the direction the car pulls; that will likely point where to look for the malfunctioning caliper. Other reasons vehicles pull could be a bad brake hose or uneven brake pads. Whatever the case, have the problem looked at.


Brake pedal vibrations or pulsations (not associated with the anti-lock brake system) you feel in your pedal could be indicators that you have warped rotors. Their uneven surfaces will vibrate against the brake pads, and that sensation is transmitted through the pedal itself.


If you notice "mushiness" when you press on your brakes or that your pedal goes most of the way to the floor, this could indicate trouble with your hydraulic system like air in the brake lines or a leak. Conversely, "angry" brakes that grab suddenly at the slightest touch of the pedal could mean you have an unevenly worn rotor, dirty brake fluid, or fluid that's been contaminated with moisture.


The importance of regular brake inspections and proper maintenance cannot be overstated. Unlike airbags, seat belts, and other safety systems in place to protect you during a crash, your brakes are one of the only components that can help you prevent a crash from happening altogether. Don't neglect your brakes.