How, exactly, do your brakes work?

How, exactly, do your brakes work?
How, exactly, do your brakes work?

You rely on the functionality of your brakes to keep yourself and your family safe while on the road.  All it takes is a split second – an animal or a person running across the street – and you slam on the brakes and pray that they’ll slow your car down in time.

But how, exactly, do your brakes work?

The brake pedal that you push on is connected to a master cylinder inside the engine compartment. When you push down on the pedal, hydraulic pressure is created in that master cylinder which converts the kinetic energy of your foot pushing on the pedal into thermal energy to activate the braking process.  This, along with pressurized brake fluid throughout the pipes and hoses that hydraulically activate the pistons within the assembly of each wheel hub, force the friction-material on your brake shoes/pads against the rotating parts. This is the process that stops your vehicle.

The most common types of braking systems you’ll find in vehicles are as follows:

  • Disc brakes: these consist of a brake disc, brake caliper, and brake pads. Any time the pedal is pushed on, pressurized hydraulic fluid draws the brake pad friction components against the spinning brake disc. This process is what makes the vehicle slow down and stop. 
  • Drum brakes: this system consists of hydraulic wheel cylinders, curved brake shoes, and a brake drum. Any time the pedal is pushed on, it applies itself to these curved brake shoes lined with friction material. They are forced via hydraulic wheel cylinders against the inside surface of the rotating brake drum. All of this combined produces the friction necessary to slow down and stop a vehicle.
  • ABS: more and more modern vehicles are outfitted with anti-lock braking systems, or ABS. This system works by limiting, applying, and releasing pressure to any wheel that decelerates too fast. This means that the maximum stopping force can be applied without brakes locking up and causing your vehicle to skid. The ABS system tests itself each time the ignition turns on. If anything isn’t working properly, the warning light will come on.
  • Parking brake: the parking, or hand brake, is a lever mechanism used to hold a vehicle in the parked position – for instance, if you were parked on a steep incline. This lever activates the braking components at the rear of the vehicle’s brake system.

 There are numerous intricacies that make up the vehicle you operate every day, and rely on to get to and from work and other activities.  Understanding how your brake system works and having any issues that arise handled by a reliable mechanic will ensure that you never miss a day of work, or an activity on your calendar.