While most new car adverts focus on power and acceleration, a crucial part of safe driving is being able to stop in time, every time. Your brakes are essential, yet most of us do not give them a second thought unless they fail completely – at which point they tend to get your undivided attention.
What can or should you do to be certain that your brakes are always in perfect working order, and that when you apply them the car will stop every time? Here are some simple tips from MiWay to improve your braking and detect any issues early on.
- Know the ‘feel’
One of the easiest methods to assess how well the brakes are working is to simply know how they feel when you push the pedal. A simple test is when you start the car; put your foot on the brakes and they should feel hard. As the engine turns and starts, the pedal should go softer and give a little. This is evidence that the hydraulic system is working correctly and will translate your foot pressure into stopping force.
If the brakes stay hard, or if the pedal depresses all the way to the floor, you might have a problem. The same applies if the brakes suddenly start feeling spongy when the engine is running, or if they require pumping to get them to work; this can indicate low brake fluid, or water or air in the brake lines.
If the car pulls to one side when braking, there is a problem: one or both wheels on one side are not being braked and the car may be unsafe and should be inspected.
If there is a juddering feel to the brakes, or any sort of shaking movement, it could indicate problems with your suspension (such as worn shock absorbers) which will also adversely affect braking; get it checked out. Worn suspension is particularly serious when braking hard on uneven surfaces (like dirt roads).
- Regularly inspect the brakes AND tyres
This is another simple method which can identify issues with your brakes. Most modern cars are fitted with disc brakes and aluminium wheels, which make inspection simple. If you notice the discs (also called rotors) becoming scraped or scored (and this is usually accompanied by an irritating screeching sound), it means the brake pads are on their way out. Generally, pads will give fair warning when they start to wear down – but do not leave it too long, or the backing plate will damage the disc, requiring more expensive repairs.
Inspecting brakes is more difficult with cars which are fitted with pressed steel wheels and hubcaps, as it is not possible to see the brakes without first removing both.
While the brakes apply stopping force to the discs, that force is ultimately translated to the tyres. If your tyres are worn or damaged, braking will be affected, particularly if the road surface is wet. Check your tyres routinely and maintain proper inflation: a soft or overly hard tyre, too, will influence braking performance.
- Regular services are essential
Owning a car and getting the most from it depends on regular maintenance. Most manufacturers recommend an oil change between 10 and 15 000km; beyond the oil, it is important to service the brakes, too. Generally, pads and possibly rotors will need to be replaced around 100 000km, but every time the vehicle is in for a service, have the brakes checked by a professional.
There is one additional check that many motorists are completely unaware of: A brake fluid flush is recommended every two years by most car manufacturers, regardless of mileage. This is because brake fluid absorbs water from the air. It is also a ‘stressed’ component, because when brakes are applied, heat is generated. Some of that heat is transmitted to the brake fluid, breaking it down. A simple visual check is possible, if you can identify the brake fluid reservoir: it should be a golden colour. If it is dark – brownish or black – it is time for a flush. Or, just make sure to ask your mechanic to check and if necessary, do the job for you.
- Drive to the conditions
With the confidence that your brakes will always work as designed, stopping safely also depends on using the equipment properly. A common error is to drive the same way regardless of what the road looks like. That is a bad idea, because your ability to stop depends on the road surface. If it is wet or uneven (like corrugations on dirt roads), if visibility is poor in mist, if the road is narrow and winding, then you should adapt your driving accordingly. Giving yourself more space to stop is always a good idea, regardless of the conditions. Remember the three-second rule, even in good weather and with a perfect road surface: count to three when the car in front of you passes a fixed object, and make sure there is three seconds or more before you pass the same object. Double that, or more, if the conditions are less than ideal—and slow down; the speed limit is not a target.
- What to do if the brakes fail
Sometimes, the unexpected happens. If your brakes fail, stay calm, take your foot off the accelerator, switch on your hazards and let the vehicle slow down. Pump the brake pedal; this can get the brakes working. Change into lower gears to use the gearbox to slow the vehicle; try using the handbrake (which generally operates with a cable rather the brakes’ hydraulic system). Look to pull over where-ever it is safe to do so, and do not forget to apply the handbrake or leave the car in gear once stopped so it won’t roll away.
Finally, do not drive your vehicle, no matter how slowly, if there is a problem with the brakes. Either have it repaired onsite or arrange for your car to be towed to a repair shop.