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We all strive to be attentive, conscientious drivers. We keep an eye on the fuel levels. We schedule routine maintenance to keep our cars in good shape. And when the dashboard light comes on alerting us to a problem with our brakes, we take a look at what’s going on. 

But sometimes, there may be issues in the making that haven’t yet triggered the warning light. Fortunately, there are some common signs of brake problems that you can watch out for. If you’re noticing any of these red flags, be sure to check for these braking system problems.

5. Your pedal is as squishy as the thawing ground

A squishy brake pedal (one that has to be pushed almost to the floor before it starts to slow the car) indicates one or more of a few different problems. Your brake pads may be worn, or there may be a leak in the brake fluid lines. At worst, you may have an obstruction in the brake line or a similarly dire issue. Address the problem sooner rather than later for safety, and to save money on repair costs.

A female mechanic wearing a blue jumpsuit looks for brake problems on a car that's up on a lift
Auto technician inspects for signs of brake problems | Frank Rumpenhorst/picture alliance via Getty Images

4. Good vibrations? Not if they’re coming from your brakes

You may feel vibrations when coming to a stop if you’re driving over a section of road that’s been wrecked by frost heaves or the aftermath of winter. But if you’re feeling shuddering and vibrating any time you apply the brakes, there’s likely a problem with the brake rotors. When rotors become warped from extreme stress (frequent downhill driving or heaving hauling) the surfaces can become uneven and cause those vibrations.

If it’s not a rotor problem, you may need to perform a wheel alignment.

3. Your car is pulling side-to-side when braking

The Cha-Cha Slide is a fun dance when you’re expecting it—less so when your car is suddenly sliding to the left and sliding to the right when you’re just trying to stop at a red light. If your car seems to have spring fever and is pulling to the side, there may be a stuck brake caliper that’s causing uneven friction. Other common brake problems that would cause pulling are uneven brake pads or issues with the brake hose.

This is another red flag that may also signal a problem with your wheels. Knowing the basics of tire maintenance can help you determine whether it’s a tire issue or brake problems causing the pulling.

A mechanic sands down a brake disc to clean it, preventing further or future brake problems
An auto technician cleans a brake disc | Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group via Getty Images

2. Squealing or grinding noises coming from your brakes

No, that’s not Deadmau5 you’re hearing. Squeals, low growls, or guttural grinding noises are all signs that your brakes need repair soon. Soft whines may only mean that your brakes are a little wet, especially on soggy days in the spring. But if your brakes are consistently making a high-pitched squeal, it’s time to get them looked at ASAP.

Automakers build special indicators into your brakes designed to squeal and put up a fuss when the pad starts to wear thin. If you don’t replace your brake pads before they wear through, the calipers will start to grind against and leave marks on your brake rotors. That’s a significantly more expensive brake repair than replacing brake pads, so listen carefully.

1. Your brake pads are no spring chicken

As you may have noticed, a lot of these common brake problems start with and come back to the condition of the brake pads in your car. HowStuffWorks points out that checking your brake pads is an easy and quick task you can do every few weeks or months. Just look between the spokes of your wheel; find the pad (between the caliper and the rotor), and estimate the thickness. Brake pads should be at least one-quarter inch thick—a little less than pinky width.

There aren’t hard-set rules about when to replace brake pads because the rate of wear can vary so much by situation. A driver who lives in a relatively flat area with little traffic will need to replace their brake pads less frequently than a driver who lives in a hilly urban area. That’s why checking your brake pads in the spring, and being aware of these common signs of brake problems, can be so important.

Close-up of a Brock wheel covered in water droplets, with Brembo brakes showing through the spokes
Water drops on Brock alloy wheels | Jan Kopřiva via Unsplash

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