Stopping Power: Tips on Brakes

        If you saw a deer step out in front of you on the road ahead, at 55 miles per hour in a typical automobile it would take you approximately 228 feet to bring your car to a stop. What percentage of the total distance it takes to stop your car would you estimate will be due to your own reaction time? Maybe 20 percent of the distance, or as much as 40 percent?

          The fact is that most drivers would take about 50 percent, or half of the emergency stopping distance just to react. That means by the time you have recognized an emergency situation, processed the decision to hit the brakes in your brain, and then planted your foot on the brake pedal — you’ll already have traveled more than 100 feet. Now, if your brakes are in good working order they’ll go to work to mechanically stop the car during the next critical 128 feet.

        How about if your car has marginal brakes — brakes that are worn down, or poorly adjusted? Then how far before you stop? According to statistics, about a third of the vehicles on our highways have unsafe brakes. With more than 150 million vehicles on the road, that means there are 50 million vehicles on American roads with the potential for brake failure.


       With all of our technological advancements, we still generally rely on so-called “idiot lights” and the sound of scraping metal to be our most common early brake trouble warnings. The problem is that both of these types of warning methods are really giving you a “trouble” signal when it is actually time for critical safety brake service.

        Please pardon my candor, but there are two ways to handle brake system servicing. There’s the “idiot” method described above and then there’s the “periodic inspection” method. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to use naive instead of idiot, since many people simply don’t know any better. Then we can call those warning lights “naive lights.”

      While your vehicle owner’s manual will provide you with the factory-recommended service and inspection mileage intervals, the main thing is to conduct brake inspections regularly and — ideally — prior to brake pads (on “disc” brake systems) and/or brake shoes (on “drum” brake systems). Some motorists elect to use the “every other oil change” as a baseline interval for the “when” of brake system inspections, yet the factory mileage guidelines should still prevail (on “safety” inspections, opting for too often is better than too late!)..

      With the exception of regularly checking the brake fluid level under the hood, most of the brake hardware inspections are hidden underneath the car and behind the wheels. So nobody’s going to hold you responsible for actually inspecting your brakes yourself (but you’re still responsible for that motor oil level!). Your auto technician is the one who should be giving you periodic brake condition reports.


I encourage people to have brakes checked frequently — a good time to ask your technician about your brakes is during other auto services (as mentioned above), such as when getting tires, an oil change, or a front end alignment. Another reason to conduct periodic brake inspections is that it ultimately saves you money — in addition to the obvious safety and peace of mind you’ll get. When you wait until you see a glowing “naive (idiot) light” on the dashboard, or hear a metallic grinding from your brakes — you can also think more $$$ signs for the repair.

The reason that brake repair costs rise when you wait for a malfunction is that the service procedure goes from a “brake job” to a “brake overhaul.” A brake job entails more of a “preventive maintenance” procedure, where worn brake parts are replaced before they cause mechanical damage and ineffective braking. That is, a correct “basic” brake job is the equivalent of replacing the soles on a pair of shoes when they look like they’re about to develop a hole in the bottom.

Now, a “brake overhaul” results when a person brings a car in for service with brakes that are grinding when the brake pedal is pressed. That’s like bringing a pair of shoes to your shoe repair shop when the sole’s falling off and your toes are sticking out. You get the picture. Since about 1970, most cars have incorporated a combination of “disc” brakes in front and “drum” brakes in the rear. Throughout, sports and high-performance cars have more commonly included four-wheel disc brakes — while more recently many family sedans are featuring four-wheel disc brakes. Why? They offer better stopping power.

Why not on all cars? Because we’re cheap — disc brakes cost more to manufacture and we keep wanting cars to be priced as low as washing machines. An automobile’s braking system utilizes hydraulic pressure to push a friction material into contact with spinning “discs” or “drums.” The friction contact between the brake lining material on the disc “pads” and the drum brake “shoes” causes the wheels to slow — while the pads/shoes absorb and then dissipate heat. When the brake pad/shoe material wears away, you get metal-to-metal contact instead of lining-to-metal contact. This is what causes the scraping sound “naive” people hear when they hit the brakes.


What else? OK — some newer vehicles are equipped with a smart idea in the form of a front brake disc pad warning sensor that makes a high-pitched squeal when your brakes are just getting to the point of needing replacement. This is a pretty neat idea. Can you believe it? The car companies have figured that if we hear what sounds like we’ve already worn our brakes to “metal-to-metal” contact, we’ll go in for service — and be delighted when we learn that we actually had a few more miles of brake friction material remaining.

The key is to replace the brakes when they still do have a few more miles left — then the extra costs related to replacing damaged disc brake “rotors” (the spinning discs that the brake “pads” clamp down upon) and brake “drums” (the things that brake “shoes” push out against) are avoided! So, what do you think my opinion is about so-called “DISCOUNT” brake jobs? “Naive.”  Save money with coupons for ‘car washes’ — but only go with premium brake service by ASE-Certified professional technicians — and be sure the technician working on your vehicle’s brake system is, in fact, ASE certified to be competent on “brakes” [identified as ASE certification area designated “A5” **.

** The same applies to any other ASE certification area for technicians qualified to be certified for work on your vehicle. For more on understanding the important areas of ASE certification and what they mean to you, you can go to the ASE website at <> or <>

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