Car Talk Service Advice: Brakes

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What is it?

Brake pads, linings and rotors are parts of your car's brake system and are housed next to each of the wheels. They push against one another to create friction, which stops the car.

The disc brake caliper (1) squeezes brake pads (2) against either side of the rotor (3). The rotor is part of the hub (4), to which the wheel attaches.
The disc brake caliper (1) squeezes brake pads (2) against either side of the rotor (3). The rotor is part of the hub (4), to which the wheel attaches.

There are two kinds of brake systems: disc brakes and drum brakes. Disc brakes are the most common system in use today, and they're very much like the hand brakes on a bicycle. When you step on your car's brake pedal, the brake pads squeeze a spinning disc rotor that's attached to the wheel. The resulting friction, when applied to each of the wheels, slows the car.

The second type, drum brakes, involve brake shoes that push out against a spinning brake drum, which is attached to the wheel. This friction slows the car.

Both systems work by creating friction, so brake parts are expected to wear out. The questions then are, how worn out are they? And are they worn out enough that they need to be replaced?

That's what this service is all about checking these components for wear and other potential problems.

Should I do this service when it's recommended?


Why do I have to do this?

In short, you do this service so you don't crash into a cabbage truck.

What happens if I don't do this?

If you neglect your brake pads and shoes, your brakes will ultimately fail. Even before that happens, however, you can cause damage to other, more expensive brake parts, such as rotors, drums and calipers. In other words: a stitch in time ... saves you from helping your mechanic with a boat payment later on.

Can I Do This Myself?

It depends on where you rank on the Car Talk do-it-yourself scale:

There are two kinds of screwdrivers?
I've successfully hung pictures around the house.
I've changed my own oil.
I've fixed things on my car that involve removing more than five bolts.
I've built a working nuclear reactor out of wood.

Is there any maintenance required between intervals?

If you notice any of the following signs and symptoms when you brake ...

  • flashing brake warning light
  • squealing, chirping or grinding noises
  • pulsations in the brake pedal
  • shaky steering wheel
  • increased stopping distance
  • car pulls to one side when you stop

... your brakes may require servicing. Make an appointment with your mechanic right away.

Car Talk Tip: Most cars have disc brakes in the front and back. A few economy vehicles and many light trucks have disc brakes in the front and drum brakes on the rear wheels.

photograph by Joe Wiesenfelder,

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