How do you know what condition your brakes are in? Do you wait until you hear them squealing a bit as you stop? Do you wait for a warning light to come on? Do you wait until the brake pedal feels low? Do you take your car in for preventive maintenance inspections every six months or every 5,000 miles? Well, if you didn't answer yes to that last question, you may be placing yourself and other riders in you car at risk.
Our cars can provide us with a lot of information about the condition of the brakes. There are systems in place to warn us about:
- The parking brake being left on.
- The brake pads wearing out.
- A hydraulics failure or brake fluid leak.
- A computer controlled anti-lock brake system failure.
Here is a summary of these four warning systems along with the actions you should take if the any of these warnings happen with your vehicle. But, let me caution you, if you have any doubt as to whether the brakes are working or whether you can safely stop the car, don't drive; have your car towed.
- Emergency or Parking Brake Left On - When you park your vehicle, you should always apply the parking brake. When the car is on and the parking brake is in use, a warning light on you dashboard will be illuminated. In many cars, this light says "BRAKE".
Ideally, you will notice this warning light letting you know you need to release the parking brake, before you take off driving! Driving with the parking brake on can cause unnecessary wear and tear on the braking system, and accelerate the need for repairs. If you are driving and your car feels very sluggish, check to ensure that the brake light isn't on.
Action: The corrective action for this one is simple -- Release the parking brake, and the light should go out. If it doesn't read on to discover what the problem may be.
- Brake Pads Wearing Out - Some vehicles have a light that comes on to tell us the brake pads are getting low. (Be aware, on many vehicles, this is same light as the parking brake light. If you've already checked to ensure the parking brake is off, then the brake pads may be the problem.) Other cars have a sound warning device; when the pads are low a high pitched noise is heard. This noise normally goes away when the brakes are lightly applied.
Action: Call a repair shop and ask for a complete brake inspection.
- Hydraulics Failure or Brake Fluid Leak - If your brake warning light stays on or comes on while you are driving this can signal a possible hydraulic system issue. It could also mean the brake fluid is low, and/or you have a brake fluid leak. (Again, this warning light may be the same as the parking brake light.)
Action: If your brakes are performing normally drive to a repair shop, and ask for a complete brake inspection. If the brake pedal feels soft or is low, stop driving! Have your vehicle towed to an auto repair shop for brake service.
- Anti-lock Brake System (ABS) Light On - This light warns that there is an issue with the computer system that stops the brakes from locking when braking hard. Often this warning light shows up on the dashboard as "ABS".
Action: It's ok to drive, but be aware that the antilock brake system allows you to steer to avoid an accident while braking hard by preventing the wheels from locking. You should be extra cautious until the problem is fixed. Be sure to make an appointment to have your antilock braking system checked as soon as possible.