We’ve all been there: you’re on the road, when suddenly your car makes a fairly terrifying grinding sound. If you’ve noticed this sound, it’s likely to be your brake pads warning you that they need replacement by making this awful noise.
So what exactly are brake pads? Brake pads are what stops your car when they press against the brake disk rotor. They’re located in the wheel of your vehicle, and made of steel backing plates with friction material bonded to the surface that faces the disc rotor. This friction material makes contact with the disc during braking and causes your car to stop or slow down.
Brake pads have a limited lifespan, because their friction material wears down over time due to their constant application during braking. The average lifespan for brake pads is about 45,000 miles on average—but certain driving habits can cause them to wear out faster than normal! Frequently driving in stop-and-go traffic is one of these things—but don’t worry, even if this sounds like you (who hasn’t been stuck in rush hour traffic before?) there are ways to tell when it’s time for a new set of brakes so that you can stay safe while driving.
You hear squealing or grinding
You may notice a squealing sound coming from your brake system. That’s a sign that you might have a problem with the brakes and should contact your dealership to get it fixed.
Your car’s brake system is made up of several components, including the rotors and pads, which are connected to calipers. Calipers are what squeeze the brake pads against the rotors when they’re pressed against them, causing friction so that the car slows down. Sometimes these calipers wear out over time and make squealing noises or grind when they’re being used.
The primary cause of this is metal-on-metal contact between brake pads or rotors and calipers. You can tell if you have metal-on-metal by listening for grinding sounds from your brake system as you drive. If you hear any of these sounds, you need to get your brakes fixed right away because they’re putting too much force on them and may fail soon enough to stop your car in an emergency situation like meeting a child at his school bus stop or stopping in time to avoid hitting another car while merging onto a highway from a side street during rush hour traffic known as The Right Lane.
Your brake light illuminates
If the brake warning light comes on and stays on, it’s important to get your brakes checked out—but don’t panic. The brake light is a round circle with an exclamation mark inside it. It can be yellow or red, but not green (unless you’re in a drive-thru at Dairy Queen).
The brake light typically illuminates when any of your vehicle’s brake systems—anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, traction control system—need attention. If the parking brake is engaged and the parking brake light (which looks like a sideways U with an exclamation mark inside it) does not illuminate, that means there’s another issue.
Your steering wheel vibration
“Something’s not right with my car. I feel a vibration or pulsing in the steering wheel and when I look down, it feels like my rotors are warped or something.”
The first thing to check is whether the vibration is coming from your wheels. If it does, you can correct the issue by checking if you have brake pads that are too worn, as well having to replace all four rotors. The second, more common question for many people is “Does this happen only when I’m stopping, or does it also happen when I’m driving?” In that case, there’s a slightly more complex diagnosis. When you’re stopped at a stoplight, apply light pressure on the brakes and watch for any pulsing in your steering wheel (there should be none). If it happens then releases—but doesn’t return with each press of on your brakes—suspect brake pads. However, if you feel a strong vibration after braking that doesn’t come back after releasing brakes (or other movement), this suggests a problem in your rotor/brake pad assembly and needs to be addressed professionally.
Your car lurches to one side during a stop
If you find yourself pulling to one side when you brake, it could be a sign that your brakes need attention. If the situation is caused by worn pads, the answer may be as simple as replacing them. However, there are other causes of this type of behavior.
If your car pulls to one side when braking, check for:
- Worn brake pads—a common cause of pulling when braking.
- Leaks in the brake system—brake fluid leaks can cause the problem. Check for leaks under the car and near each wheel before proceeding with repairs.
- Low or uneven brake fluid—if there isn’t enough fluid in one part of the system, insufficient pressure will be generated by that part (possibly only on one side). If this is caused by wear on one set of pads/shoes/disks/drums, etc., or if it’s due to leaks on one side; then wear and tear is probably not evenly distributed across all four breaks, meaning they’re not all ready to be replaced at once.
Your car pulls to one side
Something else to be aware of is that, while the brake pads on one side of the car may need replacing, the other side might still be good. This is because brakes wear out unevenly depending on how you drive your vehicle. If you are constantly putting pressure on one side of your brakes—for example, if you are a driver who tends to come to a stop by using just your right foot—then that will cause the brake pads on that side to wear down faster than those on the left.
If you notice that when braking, your car pulls to one side or the other, this could also signal uneven brake pad wear. If it seems like only certain parts of your car’s braking system are functioning properly, it might mean that only certain parts have been maintained.
Brake pads and rotors wear out over time.
Brake pads and rotors wear out over time. The brake pads are what squeeze together on the rotor to stop your car, so there’s a lot of friction involved. The brake pad wears down over time and eventually needs to be replaced. It’s important you replace your brake pads before they wear out completely, or else you could cause damage to the rotors which will cost you more money than just replacing the brake pads themselves. Brake pad replacement is relatively inexpensive compared to other car parts, so it’s usually worth it to just bite the bullet and get them replaced when there is still some life left in them; plus, you can probably DIY this one! If you have a good pair of jack stands and a solid floor jack with proper lifting points (or axle stands if your car has no lift points), then replacing your brake pads shouldn’t be too difficult at all!