How do the brakes on a car work?

6 minute read Published on Sep 27, 2023 by BrokerLink Communications

A mechanic's hand checking a car's brake discs wear with calipers.

The car brakes are a crucial safety component of your vehicle to stop or manoeuvre your car on the road. It's essential to ensure your car brake system works correctly to stop at a red light, slow down in traffic, or prevent a collision. A working brake system gets you and your passengers to the destination safely.

Braking seems like a simple concept to understand. You step on the brake pedal and slow your car to a stop. In reality, the braking system is much more complicated to ensure all components do their jobs. Car technology advancements mean modern cars have brake systems that involve many components working together to keep you and the people around you safe when driving. Let's dive into how brakes work to ensure your car stops when it's supposed to.

How brakes work - a guide to disc and drum brakes

Disc brakes use brake calipers to squeeze a pair of pads against a disc or a rotor, generating hydraulic pressure and heat energy. The disc brake pads push against the rotors, and the brake fluid pressure creates the friction needed against the rotating brake disc to slow your vehicle down.

A drum brake system consists of hydraulic wheel cylinders, brake shoes, and a brake drum. When you press the brake pedal, the hydraulic wheel cylinder forces the brake shoes against the inner surface of the drum. The brake pads clamp against the rotors, and the brake shoes push against the drums to generate friction. The friction slows the rotor, axle, and wheels to bring the car to a stop.

You can identify if your vehicle uses a disc brake or a drum brake system by looking through one of the holes in your front wheels. A shiny, smooth surface is your disc rotor, while a rusty, rigid surface is your brake drum. You can also look at the back of the wheels to see if you have drum or disc brakes. Drum brakes have a metal tube, while disc brakes have a rubber hose attached to the brake caliper.

Brakes in motion - understanding brake systems

The braking system has several parts working in tandem to ensure your car brakes work each time you press on the pedals:

Brake pedal

The brake pedal directly controls the braking system. You press the brakes with your foot to slow or stop your vehicle. It's the pedal under your steering wheel and beside your gas pedal. The brake pedal directly controls the master cylinder and is connected to the brake booster.

Brake booster

The brake booster connects to the master cylinder to amplify the force applied to the pedal and transferred to the cylinder. It enhances the performance of your car brakes and makes it easier for you to stop or slow down the vehicle without using much force.

Master cylinder

The master cylinder delivers brake fluid to the front and rear wheels through metal tubes and brake hoses. It converts the force on the pedal and sends pressurized brake fluid into the braking system. Increased brake fluid pressure activates the wheel cylinders and brake calipers. Master brake cylinders are part of disk brakes and drum brakes.

Brake calipers

Brake calipers are an essential component of cars with disc braking systems. It supports the brake pads on both sides of the rotor and the caliper bracket. The calipers squeeze the brake pads against the brake discs or rotors. The brake fluid forces the caliper piston towards the rotors, causing friction and slowing the car.

Brake shoe

The brake shoe carries the brake lining in the drum brakes. It pushes outwards against the inside of the drum when you press the brakes. Although they have become less common in modern cars, some vehicles have brake shoes on the rear wheels.

Types of braking systems

There are many types of braking systems in cars today. It's important to understand your car braking system so you can troubleshoot or service it correctly:

Hydraulic braking system

The hydraulic system uses brake fluid, cylinders, and friction and is one of modern vehicles' most important braking systems. The fluid-filled master cylinders connect via brake pipes to transmit hydraulic pressure to slave cylinders. The direct connection between the actuator and the brake disk or drum has a low chance of brake failure.

Electromagnetic braking system

Electromagnetic braking systems are popular in modern and hybrid vehicles. It uses electromagnetism for frictionless braking, which can increase the lifespan of the brakes. When you press the brake pad, the magnetic flux attracts the rotator to the face of the brake and squeezes the inner and outer discs together.

Mechanical braking system

Mechanical braking systems power the hand brake and parking brake. It stops the vehicle through cylindrical rods, springs, fulcrums, etc. A hand brake or parking brake is common in old cars and isn't as useful nowadays.

What happens if my car brakes don't work?

After reporting the car accident, it's time to minimize damages and, if possible, ensure that your vehicle is not blocking traffic or in a position where further damage may occur. Then, make arrangements to get your brakes fixed as soon as possible. Aside from potential injuries, there are also costly financial repercussions if you can't stop your car in time. Now, your car insurance comes into play. A robust car insurance policy protects you against third-party claims, accidents, and damages. Here are types of auto insurance that can help if your brakes ever fail:

Collision car coverage

Collision car coverage is an optional coverage that comes in handy if your brakes fail or someone else causes a collision. It covers repairs or replacements required resulting from the collision. Failed brakes often result in these accidents, so bundling collision coverage into your insurance policy is a good idea.

Accident forgiveness

Accident forgiveness insurance protects your driving record in the event of an at-fault accident claim. If you become responsible for a collision or accident because your car brakes fail, accident forgiveness helps prevent your insurance premium from increasing because of the incident. You may still have to pay a deductible for repairs or damages to your vehicle.

Liability car insurance

Liability car insurance or third-party liability car insurance is mandatory as part of your auto insurance policy. It covers legal, medical, and settlement fees for at-fault incidents where you injure someone or damage their property. Your insurance provider can seek restitution for you in these cases even if you don't get sued.

Uninsured automobile insurance

Uninsured automobile insurance is mandatory and protects you if you ever get into an accident with someone underinsured, uninsured, or unidentified. It may compensate you for any injuries sustained and damages to the vehicle.

Comprehensive car coverage

Many drivers like to have comprehensive car coverage because it covers damages from non-collision incidents. Non-collision incidents include falling objects, damages while the car is parked, theft, vandalism, and damages from fires or natural disasters. There's peace of mind knowing you have comprehensive protection against incidents you don't really have control over. Comprehensive coverage is mandatory in some parts of Canada.

How can I save on auto insurance?

Failed car brakes often result in collisions, injuries, and other accidents. Whenever you have an accident on the road, there's always a chance your insurance premium could increase. We want to help you save money, so here are some tips to save on vehicle insurance:

Drive safely

You should always drive safely, and it's one of the easiest ways to lower insurance premiums. Avoid common car accidents by paying attention to the road, taking precautions in poor weather conditions, and avoiding speeding or impaired driving.

Bundle insurance policies

Most people like to bundle car insurance policies with a homeowners insurance policy to save money. Purchasing multiple auto insurance policies from the same provider usually gives you a discount on each vehicle you add to your policy.

Ensure your vehicle is safe to drive

Take your car for routine maintenance and ensure your car has safety features, such as blind spot detection, automatic emergency brakes, forward collision warning, lane departure warning, 360-degree camera, etc. You reduce the chances of brake failure and accidents when your car is safe for the road.

Get robust auto insurance with BrokerLink

Car insurance can be pricey depending on many factors, like where you live and your driving history. Average monthly car insurance rates in Ontario can cost as much as $225 to $400, depending on several factors. BrokerLink makes it easy to compare quotes and policies from different providers. Our experts advocate for you through the entire insurance process, from purchasing a policy to filing a claim.

We have offices across Canada to provide professional help no matter where you are. Whether you are looking for Toronto car insurance, Vancouver car insurance, or live somewhere else, we work closely with you from beginning to end.

Get competitive insurance quotes in five minutes using our website, or give us a call.

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