Whenever you press the brake pedal in your car, a sequence of events takes place that sees hydraulic fluid pressure squeeze your brake pads against your brake rotors. This creates the friction used that’s used to slow your car down.
You might be familiar with the rim brakes used on a basic bicycle: You squeeze the handle, and rubber pads clamp the spinning wheel rim of the bike, creating friction and heat, and resulting in deceleration. The brakes in your car or truck work on the same principle.
In either case, remember that the brake pads in your vehicle are like the eraser on a pencil: they wear out a little bit every time you use them until they need to be replaced.
Replacing brake components in a timely fashion is important because stopping isn’t optional and if you’re driving a car with worn-out brakes, your ability to stop quickly and safely is compromised.
Thankfully, your brakes will provide warnings that you’re due for a brake job. Moreover, proper, professional maintenance on a regular basis will keep those brake components lasting their longest and reveal possible braking system problems that need to be addressed.
Here’s what you need to know.
Many Variables at Play
There’s no correct answer to the question “How long do brakes last?” since many variables affect the longevity of your pads and rotors. These include the quality of the pads and rotors themselves, the vehicle you drive, how and where it’s driven, and your individual driving style.
Brakes in a vehicle that’s driven moderately and properly maintained will tend to last longer than brakes in a vehicle that’s frequently driven hard, used to tow heavy trailers, or driven frequently in hilly terrain.
Environmental factors may play into the lifespan of your vehicle’s braking system, too. For instance, frequent exposure to salty, wet roads may cause accelerated rust formation on various parts of your braking system, which can lead to accelerated wear and diminished performance.
Vehicles used frequently in dusty or off-road settings may experience faster-than-expected brake component wear, too.
Maintenance is Key
The owner’s manual for your vehicle specifies a schedule for braking system inspections and servicing, perhaps on an annual basis. The intent is to have a professional technician inspect and assess your vehicle’s brakes regularly.
During this process, various components in the system can be cleaned, lubricated, and reconditioned, extending their life. Sticking to this maintenance schedule can ensure more consistent stopping performance and longer component life.
Conversely, failing to regularly service your brakes can cost you money in the long run, leave you with sub-par stopping power, and even void any applicable remaining warranty coverage on your newer vehicle’s brakes.
Getting Your Attention
There are several ways your brakes may try to tell you that they’re in need of some TLC or replacement parts.
These include an irritating squealing or squeaking sound in certain driving situations. The sound is created intentionally by a special part built into the brake pads that’s used to alert drivers when those pads are worn down and in need of replacement.
Another audible clue is a rough and metallic scraping sound that may be apparent when stopping. It’s a grinding sound, which is different than squealing. Often, this is a sign of rust or gouging of your brake rotors, which will need replacement.
In some vehicles, special sensors are used to monitor the condition of the braking system components. These sensors can detect when those components are nearly worn out and the result is a message or warning lamp in the dashboard or instrument cluster. This is the driver’s invitation to have the braking system inspected professionally.
Note that a braking system warning light may illuminate for other reasons, some of which are extremely dangerous. If you see a warning light relating to your braking system, check your owner’s manual for the proper course of action relevant to your specific vehicle.
Finally, if something sounds or feels off when it comes to your brakes, it probably is. If it’s taking longer than normal to stop, or if you hear anything unusual while you’re braking, have a technician assess your brakes as soon as possible.
Other Warning Signs
Aside from irritating sounds and warning lights, the way your vehicle drives may provide some warning that your brakes are in need of attention.
Some warning signs include a throbbing pulsation during light to moderate braking, which may be a sign of warped brake rotors that have been stressed by excessive heat.
Another warning sign is pedal “deadness”, which is as a soft or mushy brake pedal feel or the sensation that you need to press deeper into the brake pedal than before to get your vehicle to slow down or stop. In extreme cases, the brake pedal may be able to touch the floor of the vehicle in an emergency stop. If that’s the case, stop driving your vehicle immediately and have it repaired.
Finally, a tendency for your vehicle to pull to one side or another during braking may indicate a problem that needs correction, too. Sometimes, this coincides with the buildup of rust and debris within parts of the braking system, which can accelerate component wear.
Easy Tips for Longer Brake Pad Life
Drivers can take a few simple steps to help get the longest possible life from their brake pads.
These include leaving plenty of space between yourself and the next vehicle in traffic, which reduces the need for quick, sudden stops, which result in excessive wear.
Training your eyes to look as far as possible up the road is another great way to preserve your brakes. This provides additional lead time for stop signs, slowing traffic, or red lights. As a result, you can spend more time coasting down to a slower speed (which doesn’t wear out your brakes), rather than braking down quickly (which does).
Finally, be conscious of the temperature of your brakes and cool them when needed. Your brakes get extremely hot when stopping quickly from a high speed, when braking down a steep hill, or during certain spirited or aggressive driving. If you’re towing a trailer, your brakes will heat up even more.
Where possible, avoid stopping and parking your vehicle while its brakes are hot. A moment or two driving at a leisurely pace is advised before parking to let the brakes cool down first.
Brakes are designed to stand up to heat, but repeated exposure to excessive heat can be problematic, especially for low-budget components.