How to Spot Brake Issues: 7 Common Signs to Watch For

As winter approaches, it’s important to pay close attention to one of the most crucial safety features of your vehicle: the brakes. Being able to spot the early warning signs of brake issues can literally be a lifesaver, especially when you're dealing with rainy, foggy, or icy conditions on the road.

To help you spot brake issues before they have a chance to compromise your safety, here are some common signs to watch for.

Your Brake Light Is On

One of the most straightforward indicators that your brakes need attention is the brake warning light on your dashboard. Most modern vehicles have two brake warning lights: the Antilock Braking System (ABS) and the brake system warning light.

The brake system warning light doesn’t just come on when there’s a serious issue—it can also come on if you’ve left the parking brake engaged. However, if you’ve checked the parking brake and the light is still on, you should schedule an inspection. Likewise, if the ABS light is on, it indicates an issue with the anti-lock brakes and should also be addressed as soon as possible.

Squealing, Squeaking, or Grinding Noises

If you’ve noticed a high-pitched metallic squealing sound when you hit the brake pedal, you’re likely hearing the wear indicators on your brakes. Although it’s not an emergency, you should schedule a brake pad replacement soon.

If you wait too long to replace the brake pads, you risk damaging the rotors, which are the large silver discs located behind your wheels or rims. Replacing or resurfacing the rotors costs significantly more than a simple brake pad replacement. If you’re hearing a grinding metal-on-metal sound, the brake pads are likely already worn down and are starting to damage the rotors.

Vibration When Braking (Or In Your Steering Wheel)

Shaking in the steering wheel or vibrations while braking are telltale signs of warped rotors. Although you may be able to have the rotor resurfaced, there are times when it’s safer to replace the rotor altogether.

Fluid Leaks

Brake fluid leaks are often caused by a faulty master cylinder. The master cylinder houses the brake fluid and is responsible for generating the hydraulic pressure needed to brake effectively. If the master cylinder is damaged, it can affect your ability to brake safely—so this is an issue that should be addressed right away.

Other issues that can cause brake fluid leaks are damaged brake lines or hoses, faulty calipers or wheel cylinders, loose or improperly installed brake fittings, issues with the brake fluid reservoir, or air in the brake system.

Spongy or Soft Brake Pedal

If you notice the pedal feels "soft" when you hit the brakes, or your brake pedal sinks to the floor, you should have your brakes inspected immediately. These signs often mean there’s moisture in the brake system or that the master cylinder is malfunctioning.

A Burning Smell (or Smoke) While Driving

A burning smell or smoke coming from the wheels and brakes usually means the brakes or clutch is overheating. The first thing you should do is pull over and give the components some time to cool down. Don’t continue to drive, because this could lead to total brake failure.

After about 5 minutes or so, you should be okay to drive again—but make sure to drive at modest speeds and avoid any sudden or prolonged heavy braking to prevent further overheating and potential damage to your braking system. Once you've reached your destination, have a mechanic inspect your brakes to ensure they’re in good working condition and that there are no underlying issues that caused them to overheat.

Pulling to One Side When Braking

If your car is pulling to one side when you brake, this is usually a sign that you have a faulty brake caliper or brake hose causing uneven pressure on one side of your vehicle. Since this can make handling difficult—especially in slick conditions—you should schedule a brake system inspection as soon as possible.

Experiencing Brake Problems? Contact RPM Automotive Services!

If you're encountering any of the above symptoms, it's high time to have your brakes professionally inspected. RPM Automotive Services has been the trusted choice for auto care for Sonoma County drivers since 1982. Family-owned and operated, we’re an ASE- and ASCCA-certified shop that offers comprehensive repairs and maintenance for domestic and foreign vehicles. Whether you need an inspection or rotor resurfacing, we have the skill, experience, and equipment to keep your brake system safe and reliable all year long.

Contact us today at (707) 800-4586 or schedule an appointment online!

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