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Expect The Unexpected

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The chances of brake failure are rare. Even so, it is best to be prepared for the worst. Here are pointers on how you can respond safely if you should encounter it.

Car ownership in Singapore is unique, based on our land mass and tax-based ownership environment. The biggest advantage of this is that most cars here are young and so, need less maintenance.  With younger cars, fewer problems are expected. No surprises then that when trouble like brake failure arises, most drivers are caught unprepared.

The worst-case scenario is having brakes not respond while you are stuck in traffic. With no Brake Warning Lights, “Red” icon, appearing on the instrument cluster, and nowhere to stop, observe the following:

Spongy
Press the brake pedal, there is a “spongy” feel with less pedal resistance and it feels soft.

Pump the brake pedal gently two to three times. Does the brake regain some effectiveness? If it temporarily works again, it is likely that brake fluid levels are low or there is air in the braking system. Should the brake pedal rise slowly, brake fluid is almost lost and/or the master or slave cylinders are failing. Not much can be done, find a safe place to park and call for a tow.

Burnt “metal” smell
When braking continuously, especially going downhill, there is a smell of burning metal. Likely the brake discs are overheating and effective braking is lost, adding to the “spongy” feel.

In a manual or auto transmission car, complement braking by downshifting, using the lower gears to engine brake while allowing the discs to cool. If it does not work, park somewhere safe until the discs are cooled.

Wobbling
Do not cool the brake discs by spraying water, it can cause them to warp. Therefore, as a guideline, never wash your wheels after a drive. While braking, the steering wheel wobbles, the discs are warped. Arrange for disc replacements.

Squeaking
‘Squeaking’ noises could just mean that the brake pads and discs are dirty. Not a hard fix.  When it is safe, double brake. That is, before slowing or coming to a stop, the first step on the brake pedal is light and gentle, to rub off debris (rust and dirt) or water, accumulated on the pads and discs. The second step on the brake pedal is the actual pressure used to slow or stop. In wet conditions, double braking is recommended to improve braking effectiveness.

‘Squeaking’ accompanied by the car pulling to the left or right, could mean that the pads are worn (or uneven wear). Arrange for pad replacements. ‘Squeaking’ plus all the above symptoms, and the Brake Warning Lights ‘Red’ icon illuminates, say a prayer. But seriously, immediately park safely and call for a tow.

As far as preventive steps go, stick to the scheduled service checks as stated in the Owner’s Handbook. On your own, regularly monitor brake fluid levels. If you frequently park at one spot, periodically check underneath the car to see if there are any brake fluid puddles or stains left on the ground. As for the pads and discs, check for the minimum thickness recommended by the car manufacturer.

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