Brakes are the real workhorses when it comes to car safety. The story of the runaway Toyota Prius in California, for example, all comes down to brakes. The driver, James Sikes, says he was pressing the brakes as hard as he could as it raced down an interstate on March 8. But Toyota says the car's computer shows that he alternated from brake pedal to gas pedal at least 250 times. It also says a safety system that allows the brakes to override the gas pedal was working. Stories like this may have you wondering if your own brakes will be ready to do the job when you need them. Here are some tips to make sure. Dee-Ann Durbin, Associated Press
Get regular checkups
Unlike checking tire tread or wiper fluid levels, which you can easily do yourself, experts say it's better to let professionals check your brakes. John Ibbotson, the workshop supervisor for Consumer Reports' test vehicles, said brakes are hard to see unless you have large tires. Even when you can see them, brake pads can be covered with dust, making it unclear how much they've worn. If you change your oil and rotate your tires every 7,500 to 10,000 miles, he also recommends a brake check. If you maintain your car more often than that, you can have the brakes checked every other visit. Some shops offer free visual brake inspections along with other maintenance. Sears will inspect your brakes for $15.
Heed warning signs
Ibbotson said the most common signs of brake wear are squeaking, which means the pads have worn thin, and pulsing in the brake pedal or steering wheel, which means the rotors have warped. A spongy or soft brake pedal often indicates a brake fluid leak. There may also be a problem if the car requires a lot of force to brake, or if the brake pedal must be pressed all the way down before the car begins to stop. Certainly don't ignore dashboard indicator lights that should let you know when there's a problem.
Go easy on your brakes
Avoid keeping your foot on the brakes for an extended period, which can overheat them. It's better to use moderate pressure and then release the brake to cool. Brakes will also work better if your wheels are clean.
Replace the brake pads and rotors
Brake pads and rotors, or brake discs, which clamp down on your wheels to stop them from spinning, can wear out between 15,000 and 60,000 miles, depending on your car and how you drive. Sometimes you can just replace the pads and have the rotors resurfaced, which will cost about $200 per axle, or $400 for all four wheels. It's closer to $500 per axle to change both the pads and rotors. Prices vary depending on your car and the pads you choose, which can be made from ceramic, Kevlar, steel wool and other materials.
Replace brake fluid
When your foot hits the brake pedal, brake fluid is pressurized to supply force to the brakes. Ibbotson suggests replacing brake fluid every four or five years. The brake fluid system is completely sealed, so it's best to have a mechanic flush it out. The master cylinder, where brake fluid is stored, can also wear down and costs about $300 to replace, according to the vehicle pricing site CarsDirect.com.