Brakes are an essential part of vehicular operation that we often take for granted. They stop the car, right? How much more to it can there be? As a matter of fact, understanding how your vehicle’s brakes work can be helpful for maintenance and driving adjustments that will preserve their longevity. If you want your vehicle’s brakes to last and do their job well, it is wise to know how a simple tap of your foot can stop something like a moving vehicle.
How Do Brakes Work
The heart of the way brakes work relies on the principles of physics. Pressure from your foot on the brake pedal must be transferred to the tires and amplified enough to matter to a machine that is thousands of pounds and moving 60 mph or more. In order to do this, braking systems consist of a series of components working together.
When you press on your brake pedal, a connected lever presses a piston into a cylinder filled with hydraulic fluid. This projects the fluid into a network of pipes, magnifying the initial force until the fluid comes to wider cylinders that sit next to the brakes on each wheel. Such brakes are usually of one of two types:
- Disc brakes work using a brake caliper, brake disc, and brake pad. When the hydraulic fluid gets to the brakes themselves, it causes the brake caliper to put pressure on the brake pad, pressing it against the brake disc. This creates friction between the two components, and that slows the tire while the kinetic energy is converted into heat which the brake pad absorbs.
- The initial impetus for drum brakes works the same, but friction is generated differently once the hydraulic fluid gets to the brakes. A hollow brake drum is situated near the wheel and turns with it. When the brakes are engaged, the cylinder at the wheel presses on brake shoes that have friction linings to push against the inner surface of the brake drum.
It is common for modern vehicles to use both kinds of braking systems, disc brakes on the front wheels and drum brakes in the rear. As the wheels are forced to slow, friction from the road further helps them to come to a stop. Even with this assist, the amount of heat generated in the braking process is dramatic, with temperatures reaching 950ºF or more. The brake pads take the brunt of such heat, so they have to be made from materials like ceramics, alloys, or composites that won’t melt under such extreme conditions.
The Dangers of Inoperative Brakes
So what happens if the system fails? What happens if your brakes break? Brake failure is a very dangerous situation. It can lead to losing control of the vehicle, resulting in damage or injury to you, your vehicle, and other people and vehicles on the road. In order to keep yourself and others safe, your vehicle must have functioning brakes.
If you discover your brakes are not working while the vehicle is in operation, try to shift gears downward one at a time. You can also try to carefully engage the emergency brake. Try to navigate your vehicle into a minimally hazardous area, with relatively few cars and people. If you manage to get your vehicle to a safe stop, engage the emergency brake and call for help. From there, you should take your car in to be repaired.
Signs Your Brakes Need to Be Serviced
In order to avoid brake failure in the first place, be mindful of the warning signs and service your system early on. Vehicles are usually pretty good at communicating when their brakes don’t work. A smooth ride probably indicates that your brakes work just fine, but if you notice any of these warning signs, take your car to be serviced immediately:
- A brake light that stays on
- Uneven wearing on the brake pads
- Spongy or sticky brakes
- A bounce to your vehicle when you stop
- Grinding or squeaking sounds when you brake
- Fluid leaking from the brake fluid line
- A burning smell
Taking Care of your Brakes
To avoid serious damage or the dangers of having your brakes go out, have your brake pads serviced regularly, preferably once a year. It is also wise to keep a close eye on your fluid lines and your brake fluid levels. If your fluid is running low, it may indicate a leak. Obviously if you experience any of the warning signs mentioned above, you should have your brakes looked at right away, but you don’t have to wait until something fails to help you brakes work properly. Good driving practices also go a long way toward preserving them. Avoid hard or sudden braking as much as you can, and take advantage of opportunities to coast. If you are exiting the freeway or coming up to a light, let your vehicle coast for a while to reduce the work your brakes have to do.