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Five Common Brake Problems in Cars

Eddie spent 35 years in the automotive business with Honda. He is an ASE Certified Master Technician and has bruised knuckles to prove it.

Brake problems can be daunting if you don't know what's causing them. Fear of the unknown causes anxiety. You have questions like: Will my brakes fail? Are they safe? Can I drive my car? Should I drive my car?

Here are five of the most common brake problems I run into, starting with the most serious. It's good to understand what the cause of your problem might be before a mechanic starts talking about the need to replace this or that. If you don’t find your issue here, check out my article on brake noises, look through the comments at the end, or leave a comment yourself telling your story.

The Five Most Common Brake Problems

  1. Soft brake pedal
  2. Car pulls to one side
  3. Steering wheel shakes when brakes are applied
  4. Brake pedal pulses up and down
  5. Whole car shakes when brakes are applied

Continue scrolling to learn more about these common issues and their solutions.

Parts of the Brake System

In case these terms are new to you, real quick, I'll tell you that to stop the car, the master cylinder sends out fluid through tubes under pressure to drive a pincher (a “caliper”) that presses a “pad” or “shoe” against a metal disc (“rotor”) or drum. Most modern brakes have rotors; older ones have drums, especially in the rear.

1. Soft Brake Pedal

A soft brake pedal is a MAJOR brake issue. If your brake pedal feels squishy, "like stepping on a plum," and won't stop on the way down unless you pump it, or the brake pedal sinks to the floor with little or no resistance, you have a dangerous situation and should NOT drive any further! If you do, it could be a matter of minutes until you smash into something.

When the brake pedal gets soft or sinks to the floor, it's generally due to a leak in the braking system, most commonly the master cylinder leaking internally or externally.

The first thing you should do is check your brake fluid—look in your owner's manual to see how.

Brake fluid reservoir.  if your brake pedal is soft; first check the fluid level to determine if you have a leak in the braking system.

Brake fluid reservoir. if your brake pedal is soft; first check the fluid level to determine if you have a leak in the braking system.

A master cylinder may fail in two ways: internally or externally. If the brake fluid reservoir is full and there are no signs of leaks, the problem is usually an internal problem that you can’t identify just by looking at the master cylinder. Don't drive the car in any case; there is something wrong with your brakes if the pedal is soft.

It's worth grabbing a flashlight and looking to see whether the master cylinder is leaking visibly. If it is, you should be able see the fluid on the carpet under your dash, just over your brake pedal. The pictures below show the master cylinder under the brake pedal.

Location of the Master Cylinder

The master cylinder, where it attaches to the brake pedal. If the master cylinder is leaking externally, you will see fluid dripping from the place where the rod goes into the cylinder.

The master cylinder, where it attaches to the brake pedal. If the master cylinder is leaking externally, you will see fluid dripping from the place where the rod goes into the cylinder.

A better idea of where the master cylinder is located in relation to the brake pedal.

A better idea of where the master cylinder is located in relation to the brake pedal.

Note: The only fix I recommend for a faulty master cylinder is to replace it with a new one. You shouldn't waste your valuable time trying to rebuild it. It's a vital component in your car; leave it to the pros. You wouldn’t pack your own parachute on your first jump, would you?

2. Car Pulls to One Side When Braking

A car that pulls to one side can be annoying and also dangerous. This braking problem can be caused by several different things, even the tires (see below), but the most common cause is a frozen caliper. Over time, a caliper can freeze up gradually, a process that can go unnoticed for a long period of time.

One way a caliper can freeze up is by the piston on the caliper being stuck in its bore. If the dust boot that protects the piston from the elements gets torn, water and debris will penetrate the metal in the caliper and cause rust and corrosion. If the piston is stuck, and the fluid pressure can't push it back into the bore easily, the pressure on the pads will be uneven and the car will pull. To fix this problem you will need to replace the caliper.

Another possibility is that the pistons got bent, during a brake job or a car accident, and can't move freely anymore, causing the caliper to bind and limiting the amount of pressure to the pads.

The caliper can also freeze up if the caliper slide pins have lost lubrication because they have not been maintained properly. If the slide pins are your problem, they need to be cleaned and lubricated or replaced. You can buy an overhaul kit for calipers, but they are hard to find and your caliper may not be worth bringing back to life. Buying a new caliper may cost more but you will make up the cost with the time you save. Been there, done that!

The Caliper

Caliper slide pins need to move freely

Caliper slide pins need to move freely

Read More from AxleAddict

The caliper piston needs to move back into its bore with no binding.

The caliper piston needs to move back into its bore with no binding.

Other Causes of a Pull to One Side When Braking

A faulty proportioning valve or master cylinder could also cause a pull to one side when braking; this is unusual but it does happen. Most braking systems work on a diagonal braking design for safety reasons; that is, the left front and right rear brakes work together and so do the right front and left rear. That way, if there is a leak in one part of the system, it should only affect one front brake and one rear brake. If this is what is going on, you need to identify and replace the faulty part.

A pull when braking may also have nothing to do with brakes. Bad front tires, or broken belts in a front tire, could cause it. Any pull caused by unevenly worn tires will be amplified when you step on the brakes. The tires' contact surfaces expand when you brake, thus putting more pressure on the bad tire and causing the pull to worsen. Replacing your tires will fix this, or you could try rotating your front tires to the rear of the vehicle.

3. Steering Wheel Shakes When Brakes Are Applied

This is a very common brake issue on all makes and models: when you’re driving at highway speeds and you apply your brakes, the steering wheel shakes.

There are many possible causes of this shaking, including the front rotors being warped, hot spots (slight irregularities) on your rotors caused by excessive heat, or pad impressions. If your car sits for long periods without moving, moisture from rain or high humidity causes your rotors to rust, except for the patch of rotor surface where the pads rest. This patch of uneven rotor surface is called a pad impression and will cause the brakes to pulsate.

This brake pulsation can be fixed very easily by having your rotors resurfaced (which is cheaper) or replaced (more expensive). You can resurface the rotors if they are still thick enough. Every rotor has a "minimum spec" for thickness, usually stamped on the rotor near the hub where the lug nuts are. The rotor needs to be measured at the thinnest point with a micrometer or vernier caliper to determine whether it can be resurfaced or not.

Steering Wheel Vibration When Braking

An intermittent noise when braking lightly, as in the video below, could also be related to an uneven surface on the rotors.

4. Brake Pedal Pulses Up and Down When Applying Brakes

If every time you apply your brakes, your brake pedal pulses up and down, the problem is usually caused by the rotors being warped or out of true. As rotors age, they go through the heating and cooling process thousands of times, so it's inevitable for them to lose their shape or trueness. If you do a lot of highway driving and you happen to be hard on your brakes, you will probably run into this problem many times in the life of your car.

The fix for this brake problem is simple: resurfacing the rotors, if they are still thick enough (see section 3 above), or replacing them if they are not. If you do either of these processes, and your brake pads are more than half worn, it’s worth it to just replace the pads at the same time for the peace of mind it will give you; pads wear out frequently (they are a consumable item) and you might as well deal with them while in the neighborhood.

A Scraping Noise After a Brake Job May Be Easy to Fix

5. Whole Car Shakes When Brakes Are Applied

If your whole car shakes when your brakes are applied, it could be just your rear brakes. As a rule of thumb, shaking caused by a problem in the front end of the car will be felt in the steering wheel, while shaking in the rear will seem to affect the whole car.

To determine if your rear brakes are the problem, you need to test them in isolation. One way to test your rear drum brakes is to apply the parking brake slightly while driving, because the parking brake uses the drum brakes in the rear. You can do this test if your emergency brake handle is near the center console and it is the style that you pull up with your hand.

Note: I don’t recommend pulling up on the emergency brake handle at high speeds, it can cause your rear brakes to lock up and send the vehicle into a spin causing death or serious injury!

To do this test, drive your car in a remote location with no traffic at a speed of about 30 miles an hour. Push and hold the release button on the end of the emergency brake handle; this is so the emergency brake does not lock into place and can be released easily. Meanwhile, pull up on the handle just enough to feel the rear brakes grab slightly. If your rear drums are the cause of the brake pulsation, you will feel the pulsation at this time, and the car will shake when the emergency brake is applied.

If this is your problem, then the fix is to resurface the rear drums or replace them. Again, you will have to measure the drums to determine if they can be resurfaced or not.

If you have rear disc brakes, this procedure may not work because some makes and models have a separate emergency brake, which is connected not to the rear rotor and caliper, but to a special drum inside the rear rotors with a separate braking system. If you have this type of rear braking system, it is almost impossible to isolate the rear brakes.

When A Car Makes A Rumbling Noise and Shakes While Driving

Closing Thoughts

Hopefully this information will help you (and your mechanic) decide where to start when fixing your problem. When you are in a crisis situation like a brake problem, some mechanics will take advantage of the customer and over-sell the work that really needs to be done. There are only about nine evil mechanics in the world, they just move around a lot!

More on Brakes by Eddie Carrara

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: What causes a brake pedal to depress all the way to the floor in a car?

Answer: There are a few options to look at here. The master cylinder is leaking, low brake fluid, brake line leaking, frozen caliper slide pins, frozen caliper piston, leaking caliper, etc...

Question: Will a bad master cylinder cause the calipers to stick? I put new calipers, rotors and rubber lines on a couple of months ago and now the calipers stick sometimes.

Answer: Most likely your caliper is defective, if it were the master it would most likely be more then one brake caliper sticking.

Question: My car won't start unless I press really hard on the brakes. Why is this?

Answer: I don't think it has anything to do with the brake, try starting it without doing that and see what happens.

Question: My car has power brakes and used to stop on a dime. Recently it takes longer to stop and I really have to put a lot of pressure on the brake pedal to come to a complete stop. What's up with that?

Answer: There are quite a few possibilities for this problem. Brake fade is when the brake fluid is contaminated, so it causes a soft brake pedal, air in the lines, leaking master cylinder, frozen or seized caliper pins or piston, worn out pads, and glazed rotors. I recommend having a thorough brake inspection by removing all calipers and inspecting all moving parts of each caliper, if everything looks good, examine the hydraulic part of the system.

Question: Does an emergency brake in a car not work after an accident?

Answer: It all depends on where you got hit, where the emergency brake is located and if you have electronic emergency brakes.

Question: Sometimes when I apply the brakes, the pedal of my SUV goes very low before stopping completely. Other times it is fine. What can cause this?

Answer: The most likely cause is a caliper sticking, either it's the piston or slide pins. Regardless, I recommend having a thorough brake inspection by an experienced mechanic.

Question: My Chevrolet 2006 has some braking problems. The steering wheel vibrates all the time and always veers to the left. When I apply the brakes, especially downhill, I feel the brake pedal presses itself more than I do. Sometimes, though not very often, the brakes won't work, and it sounds like it's grinding for one or two seconds. When that happens, I release the brakes and apply them again super fast. Can you help me understand where the problems are and what I should repair or replace?

Answer: The first thing you need to do is remove all four wheels and inspect all caliper slide pins, pistons, and brake pads and shoes. It sounds to me like some components aren't moving freely and are getting stuck causing the pulling and noises. If you don't know what to look for, have a mechanic who knows what they are doing and are reputable to inspect the brakes.

Question: Only one wheel brakes on my 2000 Acura. I replaced master cylinder already. What could be the issue?

Answer: Is your abs light on? It's possible your ABS module is no good.

Question: What makes a car's disc brakes drag hard after a 15-minute drive?

Answer: The brake fluid temperature rising and pressure building in the brake system. Sometime a misadjusted brake light switch can cause this, a blockage in a line, a frozen caliper slide pin, or a caliper piston will not more freely are all likely causes.

Question: The brakes on my new O4 Ford Explorer are dragging. What is the cause?

Answer: I recommend checking the brake light switch, it may be out of adjustment and applying a little pressure to the brake pedal. Or it's possible your brake booster push rod is out of adjustment. Check and make sure there is free play at the top of the brake pedal after driving and braking for a while, if there is no free play, something is out of adjustment.

Question: My brakes squeak only when I back up. What do you think the problem might be?

Answer: Either the brake pads need to be replaced, or you could try shaving off the leading rear edge of the brake pad at a 45-degree angle and see if that helps.

Question: My rear inner pads wear down faster than the outer ones. Is it a caliper problem?

Answer: It could be a sticking caliper piston, slide pins, or the pads could be corroded in the caliper preventing them from moving freely. You'll need to remove the caliper and inspect all moving parts to diagnose the problem. Be sure to remove the pad shims from the caliper and check for any rust under the shims as rust can cause the pads to bind.

Question: Can it be the brake pads?

Answer: Yes, brake pads can cause problems for brakes on a car.

Question: I just had brakes and rotors done two months ago on my vehicle. Now I have loud grinding sounds coming from the front left tire. Is this a caliper or could it be a blockage in the brake hose?

Answer: The grinding sound may be something caught between the backing plate and rotor. I recommend having this area of the brakes inspected first.

Question: The brakes on my 2010 Lexus ES brakes kick back when turning the steering wheel. What are possible causes?

Answer: It sounds like you may have an ABS sensor not reading properly or maybe a damaged ABS sensor wire? The ABS is what kicks the brake pedal back, so most likely it has something to do with the ABS system.

Question: I had problems with my brakes grinding and pulling to the right when braking. I changed the brake pads, but that didn't help much. I replaced the brake pads again, both calipers and rotors. When I bled the lines, the driver side brake fluid wouldn't come down. The master cylinder seems to be okay. What do you think it might be?

Answer: It is most likely either a blockage in the line or a worn brake master cylinder. If you were to remove the line at the master cylinder and at the caliper, could you blow compressed air through it? Be careful with brake fluid; it is very corrosive when it gets on paint.

Question: I have a 99 Honda Civic EX. Why is there a rear knocking noise from the drums when applying the brakes?

Answer: You have a rear knocking noise from the drums because your shoes are being pulled away from the backing plate and snapped back into place by the spring clips. You could try having a fine cut done to the brake shoe surface of the drums and lightly sand them after the cut, or replace the drums.

Question: A year and a half ago (from 78,000 to 88,000 miles), I had the whole brake system replaced, i.e., pad, rotor, and lines. The mechanic is now telling me I need all of those parts replace again. Is this possible?

Answer: No, you should really look for a new mechanic, pads maybe if you drive a ton of miles in stop and go traffic or you're a mail carrier, lines are rarely replaced.

Question: What if your car is going through brake fluid fast and your brakes don't want to work?

Answer: This means that you have a leak in the system and you most likely have air in the brake lines. I recommend having all the brake lines, calipers, and the master cylinder checked for leaks. I highly recommend having your car towed; this is a very dangerous situation, and the problem needs to be fixed before the car is driven.

© 2011 Eddie Carrara

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