Car brake systems: what you need to know
There’s a lot to think about when it comes to taking care of your car. But at the top of the list of priorities is ensuring your car is running as safely as possible.
The most important safety feature of any vehicle is the braking system.
Whether you’re slowing down, parking your car or you find yourself in an emergency stop situation, all it takes is a push on the pedal.
But, the truth is, it’s a little more complex than that.
Every vehicle on the road today is equipped with a braking system made up of several different components.
Each part plays an important role when it comes to your safety, and the safety of others on the road.
In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about car brakes, brake servicing and how you can keep your vehicle running as safely and reliably as possible.
Table of contents
What are brakes?
Brakes are a crucial safety feature on every modern vehicle.
They are responsible for slowing down and stopping your car and they do this by preventing your wheels from spinning.
This creates friction between your tyres and the road which slows your vehicle down.
What are the different types of brakes?
Disc vs Drum brakes
There are two primary types of brakes within modern vehicles: disc brakes and
Disc brakes are made up of a disc brake rotor which attaches to the wheel hub and caliper.
Disc brakes are thought to have a higher braking force and are often considered a better braking system than their drum brake counterparts.
Drum Brakes use friction caused by shoes/pads that press outward against a part known as the brake drum.
Hydraulic fluid is pushed into the brake wheel cylinders which forces the brake shoes against the brake drum.
The friction between the shoes and drum slows or stops the car.
Brake system glossary
There’s more to your braking system than just brake pads and a pedal and we’re explaining it all.
Brake calipers are the housing for your brake pads.
When you apply pressure to your brake pedal the caliper squeezes your brake pads against the rotor which slows down your car.
Brake fluid provides the pressure which pushes your brake pads onto the rotor and slows down the vehicle.
Brake Master Cylinder
The brake cylinder’s job is to push brake fluid through the brake lines forcing the caliper to squeeze the brake pads against the rotors and slow/stop the vehicle.
Brake pads work to create friction against the drums/rotors and this friction slows the wheels. Brake pads are designed to withstand intense resistance and to function effectively for thousands of miles.
The brake pedal is the in-car brake control. By applying pressure to the brake pedal your braking system will activate and engage all of the relevant parts to bring your car to a stop.
Pistons in the brake caliper force the brake pads to make contact with the brake discs.
Rotors / Drums
Your car will either have rotors (disc brakes) or drums (drum brakes).
The rotor attaches to the wheel hub and the caliper and when the brake pedal is pushed, the caliper clamps the brake pads down onto the rotor which causes the car to slow down or stop.
“There’s more to your braking system than just brake pads and a pedal.”
What is ABS?
ABS (anti-lock braking system) is a standard safety feature within all modern vehicles.
The system uses intelligent sensors to detect when a wheel is about to lock up.
To counteract any jolting it will release the brake momentarily then immediately apply optimum braking pressure to each wheel.
“ABS is an important safety feature which uses intelligent sensors to detect when a wheel is about to lock up.”
It does this repeatedly so that the system brakes enough to slow you down but not so much that it completely locks your braking system.
When do my brakes need a service?
Brake servicing is a crucial part of your ongoing car maintenance.
How often you have your brakes tested will depend on individual driving habits and road conditions.
- Where you live: if you live in a more congested area you will be stopping and starting more frequently and hitting the breaks more often. This means they will likely wear down more quickly.
- How much you use your car
- Whether you regularly pull a trailer or carry heavy loads in your vehicle
- The quality of road that you drive on: off-road driving impacts the brakes and the dirt from different types of roads can wear down brake parts.
As a general rule, it’s a good idea to have your brakes checked at the same time that you rotate your tyres or every 6 months.
But if you ever notice any signs of bad brakes, get them checked by a professional immediately.
5 common signs of bad brakes
If you ever notice any of the following tell-tale signs of brake problems, head straight to your local brake specialist to get them checked.
It’s never worth taking the risk on the road.
The brake light is on
If you notice a red or yellow brake light appear on your dashboard it could mean one of two things:
1) you’re due for a routine inspection
2) your electronic system is alerting you to a problem.
Either way, best to get your car in with a professional for a check-up.
Strange noises from your brakes
If you notice squealing, grinding or other abnormal sounds coming from your
brakes it could mean that your brake pads need to be replaced.
It’s best to do this sooner rather than later as brake pad problems can lead to bigger, more costly problems if they’re not addressed quickly.
A shaking steering wheel
Shaking in the steering wheel can indicate that you have an uneven rotor.
This could be due to general wear and tear or rust may have developed.
Another possible cause of shaking or vibrations is the brake caliper not releasing properly.
This can happen over time due to heat or bits of dirt and debris landing on the piston.
“it’s a good idea to have your brakes checked at the same time that you rotate your tyres or every 6 months. But if you ever notice any signs of bad brakes, get them checked by a professional immediately.”
A burning smell
If you can smell a burning chemical smell when driving, it’s an immediate sign to pull over and contact your mechanic.
If you have overheated brakes it can lead to brake failure and if you notice smoke coming from a wheel it may be a trapped brake caliper which is potentially unsafe to drive any further.
If you discover liquid or residue under your parked vehicle or if your brake fluid looks low, dirty or discoloured, you may have a leak.
Leaking fluid can reduce the hydraulic pressure that is needed to slow and stop your car.
You may notice that your brakes have a spongy or soft feeling to them when you apply pressure to the pedal.
This may mean that you have an increase of air and moisture in the system and that you should head straight for a service.
Can you drive a car with bad brakes?
If something isn’t quite right with your braking system then it’s important to book in for a service immediately.
In some instances, it may be better not to drive the car at all until the problem has been fixed. It’s never worth the risk on the road.
Time for a brake check?