Common Vehicle Braking Problems Explained

Most, if not all brake problems, should be evaluated and repaired by a trusted, experienced mechanic. However, it helps to know what to communicate to your mechanic should any problems arise.

Likewise, it’s comforting to know that when something does go wrong you know how to properly handle the situation. Some brake problems may require you to stop driving right away, while others could wait for a few days until it’s convenient for you to take it to the mechanic.

Either way, vehicle brakes are not something to leave to chance. While repairs can be expensive, the cost of ignoring brake problems could be much worse. You owe it to yourself, your passengers and your fellow travelers to maintain your vehicle’s braking system.

Five common brake problems explained:

1. Loud, unnatural noises

If your brakes are working properly, you should not be able to hear them. Once of the first indications of an issue with your braking system is obnoxious screeching, grinding or squealing.

Not only is this sound embarrassing, but it also means that it’s time to have your brake pads and shoes inspected. Letting this problem go will put undue stress on the rest of your braking system, resulting in more costly repairs in the long run.

2. Brake pedal pulses or steering wheel vibrations when braking

Should you let problem number one go for too long, you are likely to start experiencing awkward brake pedal activity or unnerving steering wheel vibrations at high speeds.

These are symptoms of a damaged rotor. This can be due to rust, warping of the rotor from excessive braking at high speeds, or to worn down brake pads.

You can fix a rotor by resurfacing it, if there is enough play, or replacing it. It’s not an inexpensive fix, but it’s one you can’t ignore. To keep your rotors in good health, simply replace your brake pads at reasonable intervals.

3. Veering while braking

If your car pulls to one side when braking, you are most likely experiencing what is known as “caliper freezing.” Not freezing in the sense of temperature, but of damage caused by lack of lubrication.

Calipers have small pistons that apply brake pressure to the wheel. Should debris cause corrosion and damage to the bore, a piston could get stuck, resulting in uneven caliper pressure.

Unfortunately, once this happens you’ll have to replace your caliper (and also the mechanic who was responsible for maintaining it).

4. A “soft” brake pedal

Other than outright failure, this problem is one of the most urgent symptoms of a braking system issue. In fact, a soft or spongy feeling when applying pressure to the brakes is an indicator of imminent brake failure.

If you need to press down unreasonably hard or pump your brakes to get the desired affect, stop driving and get to a repair shop as soon as possible. This almost always means you have a leak somewhere in your braking system. A leak can happen internally or externally for a few different reasons, but the loss of brake fluid means a loss of braking capability, so it should be fixed immediately.

It’s likely you’ll have to replace your master cylinder and any damaged lines resulting in the leak.

5 . Noxious burning smell

As long as you don’t drive like you’re in a scene from Fast & Furious, your brakes should never be giving off any weird smells.

This is a sign of overheating and vastly reduces the lifetime of your braking components. Rapid cooling on overheating brakes can even reduce the effectiveness of your brake pads, spelling disaster for your next drive.

Should your brakes be giving off excessive heat or weird smells for no apparent reason, have them inspected as soon as possible. It’s often a quick adjustment to make sure brake pads and calipers are in the right position.

A Note On Brake Failure: Don’t Panic.

If your brakes fail, all is not lost. Take some deep breaths and be aware of the tools you have to assist in slowing safely.

Just think of the Apollo 13 mission: Three men trapped in outer space, gravity hurling them toward certain death, with rapidly dwindling oxygen and power supply. They didn’t panic, but “worked the problem” until they returned home safely.

Working the problem of brake failure is actually relatively simple. First, turn on your hazard flashers. Try pumping the brakes for a few seconds to build up pressure. If pressure won’t build try slowly applying the emergency brake. This system, like your anti-lock braking system, operates outside of the main braking system. If you can, try slowly swerving back and forth to abate inertia as you move to the side of the road.

Basically, don’t take any drastic measures. Don’t rip the emergency brake into a skid or jerk the wheel side to side. These maneuvers will almost always result in a crash. Simply work the problem with the tools you have at hand.