Your chemistry teacher failing you is scary, but your car brakes failing you is even scarier. So how do you prepare for brake failure? Well, exactly the same way you would prepare for a chemistry test -- study, practice and if you don’t know the answer, always pick choice C. Let’s learn about vehicle brake systems so that you’re ready to deal with brake failure if it happens to you.
Staying ahead of brake failure is super important. Knowing what kind of braking performance is normal and what isn't can help you identify problems early and fix them before you end up in a dangerous situation. Your brake system has a lot of moving parts you need to keep an eye on. Parts like a disc or brake rotor, caliper, brake pads, brake fluid, wheel bearings, brake drums, hubs, wheel cylinders and more. Here's what you need to look out for when your brakes brake, erm, break.
When brakes do their job right, it’s magical. How does pushing that little pedal make your 4,000-lb vehicle traveling at 75 mph come to a complete stop? Read on, curious learner.
“Under Pressure” is not only a catchy song by Queen and David Bowie, it’s also what happens when your foot hits the brake pedal. You see, you have a hydraulic brake, meaning when you press down on it, the force is multiplied by a hydraulic fluid (also called brake fluid) composed of mineral oil or water. Your car’s hydraulic fluid level needs to be in check in order for your brakes to work, so we’ll go over how to check it later in this article.
Hydraulic brakes aren’t the only “magic” that make cars stop. Friction plays an equally important role in the mechanics of your car brake. In fact, your brake contains parts that are composed of an anti-heat friction material, which helps create resistance and slow down your car. Let’s go over in more detail how hydraulic pressure and friction work together within your brake system.
Stranger than friction.
Most cars have two types of brakes: drum brakes and disc brakes. Hydraulic pressure and friction are at work in both types, but the mechanics of drum and disc brakes are slightly different.
In drum brakes, hydraulic fluid moves from the brake pedal to a set of “brake shoes,” which are composed of that friction material we mentioned earlier. The brake shoes then press up against the brake drum and bring your car wheels to a halt.
Diagram from HowStuffWorks.com
In disc brakes, brake fluid moves from the brake pedal to a brake caliper. The caliper contains two pads situated on either side of a brake rotor. When the brake pedal is activated, those pads get pressed together by a caliper piston. Scrrrrrrttt … and stop.
Diagram from HowStuffWorks.com
Disc brakes are considered to be better than drum brakes because they are less likely to get overheated, which can cause brake problems or brake failure. Typically, cars have disc brakes in the front and drum brakes in the back. In this way, your brake system is much like a mullet: business in the front, party in the back.
Phew. That was a lot of information about brakes. Now let’s take a break, shift gears and talk about what to do in the event of brake failure.
Brakes not braking? Step by step here’s what to do:
You’ve learned that your brakes need hydraulic fluid to work properly. Here’s how to check and make sure your brake fluid levels are enough to quench your car’s thirst. Gotta keep that baby hydrated.
Don't drink this, please.
The easiest way to prevent brake failure is to keep up your vehicle maintenance. Make sure you get an annual vehicle safety inspection and visit an auto shop if something feels “off” with your car. Regularly keep up with other preventative car maintenance like changing your oil, getting your tires rotated and replacing your windshield wipers and air filters. Make sure your car is nice and healthy so that you stay safe!