When your brakes break you need them fixed to be back on the road safely. There are six main ways brakes fail in passenger vehicles you should be aware of. If you have any symptoms we suggest taking your vehicle to a trusted mechanic immediately for a diagnosis and repair. If your brakes are not stopping the vehicle properly, use a tow truck.
My Brake Pedal and Wheel Vibrate When I Brake
If your car vibrates when you brake, it is most likely caused by warped rotors. You will feel the vibration when you brake hard through the steering wheel, though the whole vehicle may have some vibration. In some cases, you can even hear the brakes vibrating.
Typically, it is just the front rotors that are warped. The root cause is generally a design mistake by the automaker. The manufacturer put the smallest possible braking system in your car it felt would suffice and they misjudged. The heat causes the rotors to warp. When you apply the brakes, the calipers pinch down on the rotors via the pads and the wobble causes vibration.
The short-term fix for this is easy. You replace the rotors and pads. Cost range from an independent trustworthy mechanic is between $250 and $500. Have the rear brakes checked for wear as well, and don’t forget to change the brake fluid if your manual says that it will be due soon.
Brakes Squeak or Squeal When Applied
Automakers design brake pads to make noise when they reach a certain wear point. If you take your vehicle in for service when this starts you will likely only need to replace the pads and rotors, and usually only at one end (front or rear). The cost is generally $250 to $500 from a good independent mechanic.
In some cases, a small stone or another piece of debris can become lodged between the brake pad and the rotor. Sometimes it works its way out on its own. In other cases, a mechanic may need to disassemble the brakes and “clean them.” This is usually done at an hourly rate of about $75 per hour of time spent. One hour is normally enough time. If the foreign object scored the rotor you may need them replaced, and that means both sides.
Brakes can squeal for other reasons. Worn brakes or brakes that were improperly serviced, perhaps by not replacing the rotors, but only the pads, can make noise due to channels in the rotors. Some performance brakes also make noise that is not an indicator of a failure, but of poor design.
Brake Pedal Goes To the Floor
If your brake pedal goes to the floor and requires pumping to make the car slow down, pull over and call for a tow truck. Your vehicle has a serious problem in need of a professional. The issue may simply be air in the lines a simple fix with a cost of under $200. Or the problem might be a broken brake line, a broken caliper, or a more serious issue. This is one to have the pros handle.
Your Rotors Are Rusty
If you can see that your brake rotors are rusty by looking at them through your wheels don’t panic. Rotor rust can happen in just hours following rain, snow, or a car wash. This type of surface rust is nothing to worry about. If you have just one rotor that looks different from the rest of the brake rotors, see a mechanic right away. It is an indication of a problem.
You Can See Brake Dust On Just One Wheel
If just one of your four tires has a lot of “dirt” on it, and it is difficult to rinse off, it is likely brake dust from a pad being ground down. Sometimes a caliper can freeze and not retract. If this happens it is often apparent. The wheel will also be hotter to the touch after driving than the other three. You will need a mechanic to diagnose the full problem, but you may need a caliper and a replacement of the brake rotors and pads at that end of the vehicle. The cost will be between about $500 and $750.
Your Car No Longer Rolls Forward a Bit At Stoplights
If you notice that your car no longer seems to creep up when you remove your foot from the brake at stoplights, the issue is most likely a frozen parking brake. Parking brake cables can and do become locked up due to normal wear and corrosion. If you live in an area where salt is used on roads, or if you don’t normally use your parking brake, but then do so, it happens more often. This repair can be costly. A parking brake assembly plus the replacement of the rear pads and rotors may be needed. Budget between $500 and $900. Sometimes the mechanic can simply lubricate the assembly and free it up.
If you found this information helpful or have another brake issue you feel should be explored in a story, please comment below.
John Goreham is a long-time New England Motor Press Association member and recovering engineer. John's interest in EVs goes back to 1990 when he designed the thermal control system for an EV battery as part of an academic team. After earning his mechanical engineering degree, John completed a marketing program at Northeastern University and worked with automotive component manufacturers, in the semiconductor industry, and in biotech. In addition to Torque News, John's work has appeared in print in dozens of American news outlets and he provides reviews to many vehicle shopping sites. You can follow John on TikTok @ToknCars, on Twitter, and view his credentials at Linkedin