Signs of Brake Problems

Brake Rotors

What's that burning smell?
Your car's tires and brakes are among the most important components for safe driving. It's better to check your brakes often and take care of any problems before they get worse and become more expensive to repair.

Remember all those old movies where somebody's brake lines are cut, and they can't stop and careen off a cliff to their doom? Yeah, nobody wants that. But seriously, what are the telltale signs that your brakes need work? What are the signs of brake problems and what does it require to get them fixed? Well, we have the answers right here:

Use Your Senses

Cars today have advanced sensor systems that let you know when just about any and everything needs attention on your car, including check engine lights and brake maintenance lights. But your human sense of smell, touch, hearing, and sight are your first line of defense when dealing with potential brake system problems.
If you notice a burning smell while driving, it could be due to your brakes or clutch getting too hot. Did you notice the smell after braking hard on a downward slope or steep road?
Does the brake pedal feel spongy or soft? There could be air in the brake lines. Do you feel a shaking in the steer wheel when your brake hard? You may have warped or uneven brake rotors.
Do you hear loud squealing or metallic grinding noises when you use the brakes? It sounds like you may need to replace the brake pads. Your sight is important too as you can see brake fluid that puddles under the car and is a sign of a leak. Your first line of defense is to notice that the Brake Warning light on your dashboard has come on. Let's start with that. What does it mean when your Brake Warning Light comes on?

Brake Warning Lights

The most obvious Brake Warning Light simply indicates that your emergency parking brake is on. However, other dashboard warning lights could mean anything from that you cars needs an inspection to a more serious problem that's been triggered by your car's smart electronics.
To begin with, the Handbrake light (also known as the Brake Service light) is red and the ABS light is amber. If the Brake Service light is on, first check to see if your parking brake is engaged. If it is, disengage the hand brake and see if the light goes off. If it doesn't go off, you could have a problem with the hydraulic components, or the brake fluid may simply be low in the master cylinder. Take your car to your local Lithia Auto dealer right away and have it checked.
If the anti-lock brakes light (ABS) is on, your car may have a problem with its electronics. ABS reduces stopping distance and skidding in emergencies. You definitely want your ABS system to be working properly. A trip to see the service professionals at your local Lithia Auto dealer will get it sorted out.

Squealing Brakes

The number one reason that people bring their vehicles in to check the braking system is that they hear a squealing or grinding sound coming from the area of the brakes. They either hear a squealing sound when they apply the brakes or a metallic grinding sound while they are driving. If you hear a squealing sound when you apply the brakes, that usually means that your brake pads have worn down and that the metal part of the pad housing is touching your brake rotors. Replacing brake rotors is expensive so you want to avoid that if possible by having your brake pads replaced.
If you hear a grinding sound and feel it in the brake pedal the problem could be a simple one to fix. A lot of times bits or road debris such as pebbles or gravel gets caught in the brake caliper and makes noise. These can be dislodged easily. But a similar noise can also mean that your brakes have gone too long without servicing, that your brake pads are shot, and you are grinding metal on metal. If your brake rotors have grooves etched into them from this grinding, they will have to be replaced.

Vibrating or Rough Braking

If you notice a vibration in the steering wheel or feel it in the brake pedal when you are braking, you may have a worn brake rotor. Sometimes these rotors warp and become uneven, causing the wobbling or vibration. The good news is that you can often have the rotors removed and ground down to remove the uneven surface. This gives the rotors a new life and is cheaper than replacing them.
Another cause of rough or uneven braking is that one of the brake calipers (the hydraulic part that squeezes the rotor when you brake) is not releasing properly. Brakes have to function under extreme heat caused by friction and eventually, this can cause the piston or the caliper to get gummed up and stick.
You can also experience rough braking due to incorrectly installed tires. As odd as it may sound, every time one of your wheels is removed to check the brakes, tires or wheels, it must be replaced in a very specific manner. This has to do with how the lug nuts are replaced on the wheel. They must be replaced in a star pattern and adjusted with the correct amount of torque to each lug nut in order for the wheel to sit properly on the hub. If this is not done, it can cause uneven wear to the rotor.

Soft Braking

Does your brake pedal seem to go too far down when braking before the brakes grab? Does the brake pedal feel "soft" or "spongy"? Have you noticed any brake fluid leaking onto your driveway or on your garage floor? If so, you could have brake fluid that is leaking from the master cylinder or a leak in the hydraulic brake line somewhere.
You could also just have air in the braking system. Air bubbles can be created in the brake lines if the brakes have not been "bled" properly to assure that there is no air in the system. Either way, if you experience a soft or mushy brake pedal, take your car in to your local Lithia Auto dealer right away. It could just be that you need your brake fluid topped off, but it could also be something more complicated. For instance, rodents have been known to eat through brake lines and we don't want you careening off any cliffs!

Chemical Burning Smell

One of the scariest brake problems is when you smell a chemical burning smell coming from your car. This happens most frequently when you are driving on a mountainous freeway and have been driving downhill on a steep section of road and applying hard braking repeatedly for a long period of time. The brakes overheat in such situations.
If this happens, pull over as soon as it is safe to do so and let the brakes cool down. Check to make sure your Parking Brake is fully released. If you don't let the brakes cool off, the brake fluid can actually boil and then… you guessed it. Off the cliff you go with no brakes.
Let Lithia Help
The most common problem with brakes is simply that it is time to replace your brake pads. Every time you visit a Lithia Auto dealer for service, ask your technician or service representative to check your brake pads and brake fluid. They should be checking your vehicle's electronic codes anyway and topping off all your fluids at every oil change.