It’s best to start by going over the brake system in your vehicle and checking each part for wear and proper performance. If it’s safe for you to do the necessary work, I tell you how to do it in this section. If you need professional help, I tell you what the work should probably entail so that you don’t end up paying more than is necessary.
Check your brakes every 10,000 to 20,000 miles, depending on your vehicle’s age, type, braking system, and how much stop-and-go driving you to do. If you tend to ride your brakes, they get more than normal wear and should be checked more frequently.
If it’s taking longer, your vehicle pulls to one side, or your brakes squeal when you try to stop, check them immediately. (After one of those breathtaking emergency stops on the freeway, I always say “Thanks, pals” and promise myself that I’ll peek at my brakes and brake lines soon and make sure that they’re in good shape.)
Use extreme caution when checking vehicles with anti-lock braking systems (ABS). Some ABS are pressurized by an electric pump, and there may be more than 2,000 psi pressure in certain parts of the system! The “Checking Anti-Lock Brakes” section in this chapter tells you what you can do and what should be done by a professional.
Checking your brake pedal
If you’re like most people, you’re usually aware of only one part of your brake system: the brake pedal. You’re so familiar with it, in fact, that you can probably tell if something’s different just by the way the pedal feels when you step on the brakes. To check your brake pedal, you simply do the same thing you do every time you drive You step on the pedal and press it down.
The only difference is that you should pay attention to how the pedal feels under your foot and evaluate the sensation. The following steps tell you what to feel for.
Does it feel spongy If so, you probably have air in your brake lines. Correcting this problem isn’t difficult; unless your brakes have ABS or other sophisticated brake systems, you can probably do the job yourself with the help of a friend.
The “Bleeding Your Brakes” section later in this chapter tells you whether you can bleed the system on your vehicle and provides instructions for doing the job. Does the pedal stay firm when you continue applying pressure, or does it seem to sink slowly to the floor If the pedal sinks, your master cylinder may be defective, and that’s unsafe.
If the level of brake fluid in the master cylinder is low, buy the proper brake fluid for your vehicle (see “Flushing and Changing Brake Fluid” later in this chapter for tips) and add fluid to the “Full” line on your master cylinder. Check the fluid level in the cylinder again in a few days.
If it’s low again, check each part of the brake system, following the instructions in this chapter, until you find the leak, or have a brake specialist find it and repair it for you.
If you find that you’re not low on fluid, drive carefully to your friendly service facility and ask them to remedy the situation. When they’ve worked their magic, the pedal shouldn’t travel down as far before your vehicle stops.