Brake It Down

By Vicky Katz Whitaker

August 15, 2008 4 min read


How to prevent brake failure on the open road

Vicky Katz Whitaker

Creators News Service

Rain-swept pavements and icy roads are no place to discover your vehicle's brakes don't work. That's why knowledgeable motorists have their brakes inspected before the bad weather hits.

"Some drivers wear out their brakes more quickly than others," Tony Molla, spokesman for the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE), said. "Brakes are made to last 30,000, 40,000, even 50,000 miles, but if you drive down a mountain to get to work or are in stop-and-go traffic everyday, your brakes may wear out faster. It depends on the type of driving you do."

Molla and other automotive industry experts recommend that brakes be checked every 35,000 miles. However, It's not a job for the average do-it-yourselfer.

"A technician needs to make a visual inspection that includes pulling the wheel off to see how much lining is left," Molla said. In some states, a brake inspection by an authorized technician is required if you want to buy, sell, or re-register your vehicle.

You may need to visit the auto repair shop if:

* You hear a hum that's like a musical tone or a chirp. It's an audible warning signal from your vehicle's brake wear sensor that the brake pads are worn. Brake pads on all domestic and imported vehicles have these sensors.

* Your car pulls to one side when you step on the brakes. This means the brake piston/cylinder caliper assembly in the front disc brakes is frozen. When you hit the brake pedal, the calipers bring your car to a stop by squeezing the brake pads against the rotor, a flat metal plate that holds the brake pad. This creates friction that slows the tire's rotation. In cold weather, parts of the caliper assembly exposed to water and road salt can corrode, causing the caliper to stick in one position. As a result, one brake pad will wear out before the other. When that happens, the vehicle will veer to one side when you brake.

* Touch the brake pedal and you hear a grinding metal-to-metal sound. The brake pads may be worn right down to the rotor's rivets.

* You feel a chatter or vibration when you brake. Either the tire lug nuts were tightened without a torque wrench or the rotors are warped, usually from normal wear and tear. They'll need to be resurfaced or replaced.

* The brake pedal feels spongy. This means the brake fluid level is low or there's air in the brake line. It could also be a brake line leak or puncture, which happens sometimes from rocks and other road debris. If the brake line ruptures, your brakes may fail or force your vehicle into a skid.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission offers one other sign of brake trouble in its guide "Taking the Scare Out of Auto Repair": an acrid, burning smell. It's a signal that your brakes may be overheating -- something that can happen if you repeatedly brake hard when driving down mountain roads. The FTC recommends you:

* Check the parking brake.

* Stop.

* Allow the brakes to cool.

Light smoke coming from a wheel indicates a stuck brake. "The vehicle should be towed for repair," the FTC said.

If your vehicle is equipped with a supplemental anti-lock braking system (ABS), it can help you retain control of your car if you skid on ice, snow or rain-slicked pavement. The ABS rapidly and automatically pumps the brakes, keeping the wheels spinning so that you can continue to steer the car. If the ABS warning light on your dashboard stays on, the ABS system may be malfunctioning but your regular brakes should still work.

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