Brakes are often overlooked and taken for granted until you have a significant problem on your hands. When it comes to the most important safety mechanism on your vehicle, letting problems go until that system no longer functions properly is a recipe for disaster. Don’t ignore the warning signs of impending brake failure, keep your braking system functioning at its peak performance. The following is a list of the top ten warning signs that you are in need of brake service.
1 – Spongy Brake Pedal
A soft, spongy feel in the brake pedal is a sure sign of a problem in the hydraulic system. Issues such as air in the lines, failing calipers or wheel cylinders, failing master cylinder, or a weak flex line can feel soft when you hit the pedal. Your brake pedal should be firm and the brakes should feel solid and apply gradually. When the pedal is soft and spongy, your braking system is not functioning at 100%. It could be as simple as low brake fluid in the master cylinder which allowed air into the system.
2 – Hard Brake Pedal
If the brake pedal is hard to push, the problem is most likely in the power assist mechanism. There are three types of power assists – vacuum, hydraulic, and electric. Most cars and trucks use a vacuum booster to provide braking assistance so that the driver doesn’t have to exert as much effort on the brake pedal. Some heavier trucks, and certain turbocharged vehicles use what is called a hydroboost instead of vacuum to do the same thing. A hydroboost uses hydraulic pressure from the power steering pump to assist the braking function. Some electric vehicles like the Nissan LEAF use an electric brake booster to assist with braking effort. When these systems go down, the brake pedal is hard to push, but the braking system is otherwise functional. If the brakes do not work and the pedal is hard, then there is likely a mechanical issue between the pedal and the master cylinder, such as an obstruction or broken connecting rod.
Power assist failures in vacuum systems are typically caused by a loss of vacuum (disconnected, split or blocked vacuum line) or a tear in the diaphragm of the brake booster. Hydraulic boosters can seize internally, leak, or run out of fluid. If the the rest of the steering system is functioning normally, but the hydraulic brake booster does not, then the booster itself is likely the culprit. An electric brake booster problem could be as simple as a loose plug or as complicated as an electrical short.
3 – Fluid Leaks
The hydraulic system is complex, with lots of lines running to the various components, especially in vehicles with ABS. A leak in any one of these many connections will lead to a loss of fluid and air in the system. Eventually, the braking system will fail altogether. The most common leak-prone areas are at the wheels and the rubber flex lines between the hard line and the brake calipers. In rear wheel drive vehicles, there is flex line that runs between the body and the rear axle as well. Brake fluid varies from clear to rusty orange, depending on it’s age and condition. The fluid is very thin and quite slippery. There is slight odor to it. Look for the tell-tale sign of wet inner tires for caliper/wheel cylinder leaks. Brake fluid is not good for paint, another sign of a leak is wrinkled paint near a brake line connection. Any sign of leaking brake fluid is bad and must be repaired immediately. There is no acceptable amount of brake fluid leakage.
4 – Grinding Noises
If you hear noises when you hit the brake pedal, you likely have a mechanical issue with the braking system. Grinding is a metal on metal sound that means the brake pads/shoes are worn out and the base metal is grinding on the rotor or drum. Once you get to this point, braking performance is seriously diminished and the rotors/drums are actively being destroyed with every press of the pedal. Take your vehicle to your local NAPA AutoCare for brake service as soon as possible to avoid further damage and an unsafe condition. If you are lucky the rotors or drums can be saved by machining them, but most often the damage is beyond the limits of the material thickness and replacement will be necessary. If you hit this point don’t be surprised when the repair requires not only new pads/shoes, but new rotors/drums. And yes, you must replace both sides at the same time.
5 – Pulling Left or Right
As you press the brake pedal, both left and right sides of the brake system apply equally. If there is an issue with one side, then your vehicle will pull to one side as you use the brakes. This could be a simple adjustment, but most likely the brakes are wearing more on one side than the other. A failing wheel cylinder or sticking caliper will result in uneven wear and application of the brakes. Another issue is worn rotors eating up the pads and grabbing or slipping. This is also why you always replace brake wear components in left hand/right hand pairs to ensure equal braking performance.
6 – Longer Braking Time/Distance
If your vehicle is taking longer to stop that normal, then you are experiencing brake fade. This can be a short-term problem or a long-term problem, depending on the cause. An example of short-term fade is driving on a curvy road, such as coming down a mountain. Riding the brakes will heat up the pads and rotors, making them less responsive. Once they cool down, they can return to the original or near original performance. Eventually, the fade becomes permanent and the only solution is to replace the pads and/or rotors. An alternative to riding the brakes in these situations is to downshift the transmission and let the engine slow the vehicle.
7 – Vibrations
When the brakes have been heated up too much, the rotors can develop hot spots, which when cooled, contract more than the rest of the rotor. The result is a warped brake rotor. Once this occurs, every application of the brakes sends pulses through the brake pedal or steering wheel. These vibrations can also be a sign of poor steering alignment, so you should schedule a brake service appointment with your NAPA AutoCare Center to get the problem checked out. If you are lucky the rotor can be turned and made true again, if not then replacement is required to get rid of the shake. Brake drums can also suffer from the same overheating issues and warping. The solution is also the same: machining or replacement.
8 – Drag Under Acceleration
Hit the gas and the engine revs, but the vehicle is not pulling away as fast is should? The problem could be a caliper or drum hanging up. If you let off the gas (after reaching 35 MPH or so) and the vehicle slows down much faster than it normally does, this is a sure sign of a braking issue. Road grime buildup and faulty caliper/wheel cylinders are the typical cause of this issue. Drum brakes may also be out of adjustment and not able to pull the brake shoes away from the drum.
9 – Odd Smell
If you smell a funky burning odor when you hit the brakes, you have a problem. Overheated brakes smell quite bad and are a dangerous situation. If your brakes are smoking, you are burning the friction lining. In extreme cases, such as heavy duty trucks, the friction material can actually catch fire. Overheated pads and shoes develop a glaze on the surface that is slick, and your braking performance will be be greatly reduced. This is a component of brake fade as discussed earlier.
10 – Warning Lights
Any time the brake warning light comes on, you need to pay attention. There are two main brake problem lights – the main system and the ABS system. You may also have a brake service light which signals when it is time to replace the brake pads. ABS components can fail and allow the rest of the system to function normally, but the main braking warning light means that vehicle has most likely experienced a failure in the hydraulic system and needs to be serviced immediately.
These warning signs are the most common signs of an impending brake failure. If your brakes do not work, you can’t stop the vehicle. Should that happen, follow these steps to stop the vehicle:
- DO NOT PANIC. Take a breath, focus and calm down. You can’t do anything if you panic.
- Pump the brakes. If the pedal suddenly goes to the floor, there is likely a broken line. Pump the brakes repeatedly. Most vehicles have separate front and rear systems, so a broken line on one half allows the other half to still work. Pumping the brakes can build up pressure in the system, allowing the brakes to work.
- Downshift. Let the engine do most of the work. If the brakes have failed, you need to get off the road. Downshift through the gears to reduce your speed so that you can get slowed down before trying to get stopped.
- E-brake. Unless you have to, don’t just yank the handle or stomp on the emergency brake, this will lock up the rear brakes send you in a spin if you are at speed. Instead, use the emergency brake to scrub off speed slowly. A hand brake is better for this, but that all depends on your vehicle. If you moving slower than 30 MPH or so, a full application of the emergency brake is less likely to send the vehicle into a spin.
- Controlled swerving. To scrub off speed, you can use the steering wheel to swerve the car side to side, slowly and deliberately. Don’t just yank the wheel one side to the other, that will cause a wreck. Once you get the vehicle slowed down, you can make harder turns to bring the vehicle to a stop. You are looking for a slow weave, not a hard turn.
If you are in a runaway vehicle, turn on your flashers and honk your horn to alert other drivers that you are in an emergency situation. Most brake failures occur quickly and in situations where you need to stop immediately, so practicing these steps will help you remain calm and get your vehicle as slow as possible before you have a collision, and they may allow you to avoid a wreck altogether.
If you wait until you have a brake service problem, the solution will generally cost much more than if you catch it before you experience a failure. The braking system is the number one safety mechanism on your vehicle. Pay attention to the warning signs of impending doom, your wallet and life may depend on it.
Check out all the brake system parts available on NAPA Online or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on ways your car is warning that you need brake service, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.
A life-long gearhead, Jefferson Bryant spends more time in the shop than anywhere else. His career began in the car audio industry as a shop manager, eventually working his way into a position at Rockford Fosgate as a product designer. In 2003, he began writing tech articles for magazines, and has been working as an automotive journalist ever since. His work has been featured in Car Craft, Hot Rod, Rod & Custom, Truckin’, Mopar Muscle, and many more. Jefferson has also written 4 books and produced countless videos. Jefferson operates Red Dirt Rodz, his personal garage studio, where all of his magazine articles and tech videos are produced.