What Happens If Your Brakes Overheat?

From the beginning, automobiles have been a complex mechanical wonder of moving parts. Many people learn the basics of how to take care of a vehicle long before they drive one, but some did not grow up with the same opportunity. Of all the moving parts in a car, the pieces that take the most punishment, and are the most important for safety, are the brakes. Using your vehicle’s brakes too late or too long without letting up can lead to a vehicle’s brakes overheating.

Overheated brakes do not necessarily lead to outright brake failure (which is primarily caused by a loss of brake fluid), but it can lead to your brakes taking much longer to slow down. However, overheating brakes does cause significant damage to your brake system. A damaged brake system, no matter how slight that damage may seem, is very dangerous. Brakes are critical for safety on the road, in any situation. If you can’t slow down your 2,000-pound car moving at 60 mph you’re in for some serious trouble.

What Are The Signs That Your Break Is Overheating?

How do you know if your brakes are overheating? And what should you do if they overheat while you are driving?

  • The most common sign of overheating brakes is a burning smell. Sometimes there is actual smoke coming from the brake pads. If you see smoke you should immediately pull over.
  • Does your brake pedal feel “soft”? If your brake pedal provides less resistance, your brake pads could be worn down, or your brake fluid needs replacement.
  • A loud squealing sound. The third most common symptom is a loud squealing sound. A worn-out brake pad can make this sound as it damages your rotor.

Is It Normal For Brakes To Overheat?

It is not uncommon for brakes to overheat when constant intense stress is being applied to them. Brakes use friction applied from the brake pads to the brake rotors to slow a vehicle down. Constant heavy use or non-stop slight pressure can cause the brakes to overheat from excessive friction.

Bumper to Bumper Traffic

Living in a big city can come with many challenges, the most notable being terrible traffic. Even outside of normal working hours and the dreaded 5 o’clock traffic, driving around a big city can be a chore. Stoplights, car wrecks, pedestrian traffic, and commercial vehicles provide plenty of daily traffic jams. The stop and go of this type of traffic can put a lot of stress on a vehicle’s brake system.

This is the most common scenario for overheating brakes. Unfortunately, if you live in or around a big city, there’s not much you can do to avoid traffic. One thing you can do to help your brakes is to start slower from a stop in traffic. Doing this will give you more time to brake when the car in front of you stops again, which will put less friction on your system.

Mountain Passes and Hill Country

Whether you live in a mountainous or hilly region, or if you are planning to travel through one, it is very important to avoid riding your brakes when going downhill. Riding your brakes is when you apply constant pressure on the brake pedal when going downhill. Especially in a mountain pass where there are very large and prolonged inclines, this can very quickly burn through your brakes and damage your vehicle.

It is true that you do not want to go too fast downhill, especially if the road curves, but braking is not the only way to slow your vehicle down in such a situation. Engine braking is simply letting your foot off the gas pedal in order to slow the vehicle. This process slows down the engine and causes a gradual decrease in speed. If you are driving a manual, shift into a lower gear to keep your car from gaining too much speed downhill.

Driving at a safe, slower speed through mountains and hill country is always recommended and will ensure you have safe and controlled driving experience.

Aggressive Driving

Aggressive driving puts an incredible strain on your vehicle’s braking system. Frequently screeching to a stop at every light, stop sign, or traffic jam will eventually overheat your brakes and damage your vehicle.

There is nothing safe about aggressive driving and the only advisable measure to take to prevent overheating your brakes is to start driving more cautiously and in less of a hurry. Turn on some relaxing music, head out for appointments early, and keep in mind that safety on the road is more important than anything else.

How Do I Know If My Brakes Are Overheating?

Knowing the situations that can cause brakes to overheat isn’t enough. How do you know if it is actually happening? The stress of traffic and navigating mountain passes can be overwhelming, but there are signs for overheating brakes that are hard to miss.

The Squeaking Sound

If you are driving with the windows down and hear a shrill noise when everyone starts braking, you could be hearing the sound produced by rundown brake pads.

If you hear this sound, do not panic. It may be coming from another vehicle. Roll your window down and listen attentively. If the sound really is coming from your brakes you do not need to immediately stop driving your car. The brakes will still function for some time so long as you are not using them heavily. It is also possible that the sound is coming from dust trapped on your brake pad or brake rotor.

If you hear the squealing sound the best thing to do is to call your mechanic and schedule an appointment to have your brakes checked.

An Acrid Smell

In heavy traffic or while driving through a mountain pass you may not be too focused on smells, but if you do catch a whiff of a smell similar to burning carpet or rubber, you may be using your brakes too heavily. The best thing to do is to stop using your brakes heavily. If you are unable to do that, then find a place you can safely pull off the road and drive slowly for 5 to 10 minutes, which should give your brakes enough time to cool down.

If the problem persists, even outside of traffic hours, call your mechanic!

Will My Brakes Catch On Fire?

Although brakes can overheat, they cannot catch on fire. Brake pads and rotors are made from a non-combustible material. Vehicle manufacturers know that brakes are going to generate a lot of heat from friction, so they design them as safely as possible.

However, the extreme heat that is generated by your brake system when it is overworked can be a fire hazard. The oils used to lubricate parts in a vehicle and the rubber pieces surrounding a braking system are flammable. If you see smoke coming from your tires it could mean the materials near your brakes have caught flame, or are close to doing so.

If smoke is coming from your vehicle immediately pull over and exit the vehicle. Do not sit in your vehicle in case the fire spreads, which can happen very quickly. Immediately call roadside assistance, or if you see actual flames, call 911.

What Do I Do If My Brakes Overheat?

If you are in a situation where you realize that your brakes are overheating, there are several steps you can take, depending on how severe the situation is.

Let Them Cool Off

If you can smell that your brakes are overheating or hear a squeaking sound, pull off from the main road as soon as you can, but do not stop your vehicle if you can help it. When your brakes need to cool down the best thing to do is to not use them. Drive at a slow speed (where it is safe to do so) for 5 to 10 minutes without applying any pressure to your brake pedal. This is important due to the high heat that brake pads can generate. At a high temperature, when they clamp around the rotor to slow the vehicle, their heat could warp the shape of your rotor. A warped rotor will not be as capable of stopping your vehicle, if it can stop it at all.

Locate A Shop

Once your brakes have cooled down it will be safe to continue to drive your vehicle, so long as there is no grinding sound or smoke. Do not make heavy use of your brakes and set up an appointment with a mechanic as soon as you can.

If you consistently overheat your brakes or if your vehicle’s brakes are wearing down, it is very important to have them serviced as soon as possible. Continuing to use brakes that are not functioning properly will damage your vehicle much worse. It also poses a serious risk to your personal safety, and the safety of other people.

Any type of auto mechanic will be able to service your vehicle. Even small towns will have a local shop that will be able to help you if the needs of your vehicle are urgent. If you are unsure about the area you are in, ask a local for help!

Call Roadside Assistance If You Need To

If smoke is coming from your vehicle in any way, the brakes feel like they are grinding, or if you feel significant loss of stopping power, pull over immediately. Do not wait for your brakes to cool down or attempt to continue driving the vehicle. Smoke or a noticeable loss of stopping power indicate a much bigger issue than overheated brakes.

Do not risk your safety or the safety of other people. Call roadside assistance, your insurance, or if there is apparent danger, 911. If your vehicle is smoking do not stay inside it. Remove yourself and any passengers from the vehicle as quickly and safely as possible.

Regular Maintenance Is Key For You Car Breaks

Outside of driving responsibly and with care, the best thing you can do to preserve your vehicle’s brakes is to keep up with regular maintenance. If you make a habit out of changing your brakes, rotors, and fluids as needed you will enjoy great performance from your vehicle.

Check Your Brake Pads Often

Checking your brake pads is not as hard as you might think, you don’t have to take the wheels off to do it! With most vehicles you should be able to see your brake pads through the holes of the wheel in your tire.

The metal disc you see in there is the rotor, clamped to its side is the brake pad. If the brake pad looks like it is less than ¼ of an inch thick, then you need to have it replaced.

Don’t Forget To Service the Fluid!

A sign that a vehicle’s brake pads need to be replaced can be a lack of resistance from the brake pedal. A soft brake pedal can also be a sign for a much more serious issue, though. Brake fluid is an often overlooked aspect of vehicle maintenance, and yet the most important. If brake fluid runs out or goes bad, your vehicle will be unable to stop.

You can check your brake fluid at home, or take your vehicle to any auto shop. If you are already scheduling an appointment to have your brake pads inspected, ask the mechanic to check your brake fluid, too!

Don’t Be An Aggressive Driver

Aside from keeping a disciplined maintenance schedule for your vehicle, the best thing you can do to prevent overheating or damaging your brake system is to not be an aggressive driver. Many people who drive aggressively do not see themselves that way. They think of themselves as being assertive; as “better” drivers that don’t have the time for other drivers lack of skill.

In spite of what many believe, impatient driving is aggressive driving. This style of “impatient” driving puts an incredible amount of strain on a vehicle.

If you are someone who struggles with impatience on the road, the best thing you can do is leave earlier for work and appointments. Give yourself plenty of time to get where you need to go. Put music on your radio that relaxes you and give yourself more following distance so you have more time to come to a gentle stop. Other drivers, and your brakes, will thank you.

Conclusion

Overheating brakes is a real problem, yes, but it is also a problem that can easily be prevented. If you stay at safe driving speeds, avoid the compulsion to rush, and stay on top of regular maintenance, your vehicle’s brake system will keep you safe and happy for years to come.

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