How Do Brakes Work On a Car

Whether you’re a car enthusiast or just someone looking to get from point A to point B safely, knowing how do brakes work on a car is one of the most important and basic pieces of information every driver should know. Knowing how one of the most vital systems in your car works will allow you to be a better and safer driver.

Why Are Car Brakes So Important?

One of the most common fears people have is waking up in the morning, getting in their car to go to work like any other day, and having their car brakes malfunction at the worst possible moment. These days, cars aren’t built like in the Flintstones, you can’t just stomp your feet into the ground and make the vehicle stop

Imagine not having any control over the speed of your vehicle, not being able to stop whenever you need to. Imagine all the red lights you couldn’t stop at, all the people you would crash into, and all the other consequences of not having brakes. Your only option would be to turn the steering wheel and crash into the first tree you see or go at such a minimal speed that you’re barely moving. Do you now realize why the brake system is vital for any vehicle? It’s the main safety system that keeps you alive while driving.

What Do Car Brakes Look Like and Where Are They Located In Your Car?

Whether you drive an automatic or a manual, you’re familiar and comfortable with the car brake pedal, but have you ever thought about what that pedal controls? What is it connected to? Before we get into how the whole system works, firstly, you should understand what parts exist

For starters, you should know not all vehicles use the same kinds of brakes. The vast majority of vehicles today have four-wheel disc brakes, while older car models and even some newer truck models have drum brakes. Four-wheel disc brakes also come in two versions – floating disc brakes and fixed ones. 

Drum brakes have become outdated due to their heavy maintenance and braking force. That’s why disc models have become a standard option for all newer, modern vehicles. You should also know that most of the parts that go into the car brake system are located on the actual wheels. Besides the actual brake pedals and brakes, there are other components of a braking system that are just as important:

  • Master cylinder and power brake booster,
  • Rotor,
  • Brake pads,
  • Piston, 
  • Brake shoes,
  • Brake drum,
  • Caliper and caliper bracket,
  • Wheel cylinder (only in a drum brake setup). 
mechanic fixing a car
There are many components of the brakes system

How Do Brakes Work On a Car? 

Now that we’re acquainted with all the components, we can get into what actually happens that makes your car stop after you press the brake pedal. Whether the vehicle has disc or drums type of pedals, the brake system is operated by a hydraulic system. Another important thing you should definitely know as a driver is that braking throws the weight of the car forward, and that’s why front brakes play a bigger role when it comes to stopping the vehicle. 

The easier way to understand the mechanics behind the brake system is to picture a younger version of yourself riding a bike. Even though it’s a different type of vehicle and the speed it stops from is vastly different, the same principles apply. When you ride your bike and you want to come to a stop or simply slow down, you would squeeze the brake lever, and then a pair of rubber brake pads would start pressing against the bike wheel, causing friction and forcing your bike to stop. 

It might seem hard to understand how this could compare to the complicated brake system modern vehicles are equipped with these days, but the sound principle is the same – friction caused by the brake pads turns kinetic energy into thermal energy

What Is the Car Mechanism Behind the Brake System?

Let’s get a little more technical and try to understand what exactly happens with the car components once your foot presses the brake pedal. First of all, a lever connected to the brake pedal pushes the piston into the master cylinder. The master cylinder and side slave cylinders are filled with hydraulic fluid, which then gets pushed along the pipe. The hydraulic fluid fills all the pipes until fluid pressure is evenly distributed around the whole system

This results in enough force to be exerted by the brakes to stop the vehicle. Newer vehicles are made with twin hydraulic circuits that have two master cylinders, as a backup and safety precaution in case one of them malfunctions. In some models, both hydraulic circuits are used simultaneously, in the way that one of them works on the front brakes while the other one is in charge of the rear brakes. 

Every Vehicle Also Has a Handbrake

Every car in the world is equipped with a mechanical handbrake. This brake is not connected to the hydraulic braking system, and its intended purpose is to be used as a parking brake. The mechanical brake is connected to two wheels, usually the rear ones, and it has a very limited braking effect in case the hydraulic brake system malfunctions. 

These hand brakes come as levers with a push button at the end on older car models or simply as one of the buttons on newer, more high-tech modern car models. If it’s a lever, you simply pull it as hard as it will go to activate the handbrake, or you push the button up if that’s the case.

The mechanism behind the handbrakes is pretty simple – the handbrakes are connected to cables that lead to the smaller lever and arm in the brake drum. Once the handbrake has been applied and activated, a ratchet on the lever keeps it attached. The push button at the end of the handbrake lever detaches the ratchet, freeing the lever and the wheels.

What Does ABS Mean?

If you don’t already know what it is, you must have at least seen the ABS light written on your dashboard at some point and wondered what it is. It’s one of the most important safety features of any car. Unlike handbrakes, the ABS – anti-lock brake system works alongside the regular brake system. 

The first thing you should know is that your front car wheels have to keep spinning in order for you to control your vehicle. Once they stop spinning, you no longer have the ability to steer your car. In some situations, when you brake hard and suddenly, especially on slippery surfaces, your wheels tend to lock up, causing them to stop rotating. Once the wheels lock up, not only can’t you control the car, but the car can’t come to a stop, either. 

That’s where the ABS comes into play – it stops your wheels from locking up. And it does it in a pretty simple but effective way. The ABS module monitors the speed sensors on your wheels. If it notices a change in speed in one of the wheels or more, it means that the wheel has stopped rotating. In that case, the ABS module activates a pump to rapidly squeeze and release your brakes, up to fifteen times per second. 

This allows the vehicle to slow down and stop while letting you maintain control over it. The stopping process might not be as smooth as it would have been with the regular brake system, it will be slower or much faster, but it’s still very effective at keeping you safe.

Brake Maintenance Is Extremely Important

Everyone knows that cars and other vehicles require regular maintenance. That maintenance doesn’t just mean that you need to change your windshield wipers or take your car to the mechanics to change the tail light. It means that you should take your car seriously and take it to the mechanics pretty regularly to get checkups. One of the first things your mechanic will check is the state of your brakes and if there is any problem with your brake system in general. 

You need to have your brake system serviced at least once a year, if not more. Of course, if you notice any of the following signs, you need to have your car checked up immediately:

  • Any unusual squeaking or grinding noise when you’re braking,
  • Any fluid that is leaking,
  • If the brake light is activated on your dashboard,
  • A burning smell. 

What Should Be Checked When Doing Regular Brake System Maintenance?

Since the braking system transforms kinetic energy into thermal energy, which is heat, it’s completely normal to have some wear and tear with your brakes since they are exposed to very high temperatures. Even if you’re the most experienced and calm driver that never suddenly brakes, you will need to replace some brake components at some point. Besides wear and tear to the brakes, there are many other things that need to be taken care of from time to time. 

Brake Pads and Drum Brakes Need Replacement

Disc brake pads are the ones that slow the rotor down by causing friction. That friction causes them to wear down eventually, and they become too thin to function anymore. That’s why brake pads and drum brakes need to be checked regularly and replaced once they become too thin, otherwise, they could compromise not only your ability to brake but also other components. 

Check Your Brake Fluid for Leaks and Replace It from Time to Time

Braking requires even hydraulic pressure throughout the pipes so that enough force can be created to stop the vehicle. If there is a leak in brake fluid anywhere, that leak will compromise the pressure and the ability to brake. Besides the leaks, you should also replace the brake fluid completely every few years.

Inspect Rotors Regularly

Rotors are another component in the brake system that suffers from excessive heat caused by friction. Rotors can wear out pretty quickly and cause problems with the efficiency of the braking system. They can also suffer other physical damage besides wearing out. Have your rotor checked out when you check your brakes and replace it if there is a need to. 

A side mirror on a car
Have regular checkups if you want to have a smooth ride

Take Care of Your Brakes While Driving

While brakes and brake pads are meant to be worn out and replaced at some moment, you can still take care of them and be gentle, and that way, have them last longer and be more efficient. Looking after and maintaining your car doesn’t just require washing every few weeks. It requires you to take care of your car and be gentle with it. Avoid sudden and hard braking at high speeds. Always start braking slowly and gently, leaving enough time for the car to properly stop, and leave some of the work to coasting. Make sure to remember to check your brake fluid levels on your own pretty regularly. That way, you will notice if there is a leak in time.