Brake Warnings

With all of our technological advancements, we still generally rely on so-called “idiot lights” and the sound of scraping metal to be our most common early brake trouble warnings. The problem is that both of these types of warning methods are really giving you a trouble signal when it is actually time for critical safety brake service. More recently “squeakers” have been added to brake pads as an early warning system to remind you to get the brakes checked by your mechanic at your next service.

There are two ways to handle brake system servicing. There’s the “idiot” method described above and then there’s the “regular inspection” method. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to use naive instead of idiot, since many people simply don’t know any better. Then we can call those warning lights “naive lights.”

While your vehicle owner’s manual will provide you with the factory-recommended service and inspection intervals, the main thing is to conduct brake inspections regularly and – ideally – prior to brake pads (on disc brake systems) and/or brake shoes (on drum brake systems). Some motorists elect to use the every other oil change, as a baseline interval for the when of brake system inspections, yet the factory guidelines should still prevail (on safety inspections, opting for too often is better than too late!).

With the exception of regularly checking the brake fluid level under the hood, most of the brake hardware inspections are hidden underneath the car and behind the wheels. So nobody’s going to hold you responsible for actually inspecting your brakes yourself (but you’re still responsible for that motor oil level!). Your auto technician is the one who should be giving you periodic brake condition reports.

Regular Brake Checks

I encourage people to have brakes checked periodically- a good time to ask your mechanic about your brakes is during other auto services, such as when getting tyres, an oil change, or a front end alignment. Another reason to conduct regular brake inspections is that it ultimately saves you money – in addition to the obvious safety and peace of mind you’ll get. When you wait until you see a  light on the dashboard, or hear a metallic grinding from your brakes – you can also think more dollars for the repairs.

The reason that brake repair costs rise when you wait for a malfunction is that the service procedure goes from a brake job to a brake overhaul. A brake job entails more of a preventive maintenance procedure, where worn brake parts are replaced before they cause mechanical damage and ineffective braking. That is, a correct basic brake job is the equivalent of replacing the soles on a pair of shoes when they look like they’re about to develop a hole in the bottom.

Now, a brake overhaul results when a person brings a car in for service with brakes that are grinding when the brake pedal is pressed. That’s like bringing a pair of shoes to your shoe repair shop when the sole’s falling off and your toes are sticking out. You get the picture. Since about 1970, most cars have incorporated a combination of disc brakes in front and drum brakes in the rear. Throughout, sports and high-performance cars have more commonly included four-wheel disc brakes – while more recently many family sedans are featuring four-wheel disc brakes. Why? They offer better stopping power.

Why not on all cars? Because we’re cheap – disc brakes cost more to manufacture and we keep wanting cars to be priced as low as washing machines. An automobile’s braking system utilizes hydraulic pressure to push a friction material into contact with spinning discs or drums. The friction contact between the brake lining material on the disc pads and the drum brake shoes causes the wheels to slow – while the pads/shoes absorb and then dissipate heat. When the brake pad/shoe material wears away, you get metal-to-metal contact instead of lining-to-metal contact. This is what causes the scraping sound people hear when they hit the brakes.