Driving With Worn Brake Pads Is Dangerous, and Here’s Why

Driving with worn brake pads exposes you and others to danger on the road. It can also damage your car in a lot of critical (and costly) ways.
Written by Matt Terzi
Reviewed by Carrie Adkins
Driving a car with worn brake pads is incredibly dangerous for you, other cars, and pedestrians because at any moment, you might lose the ability to slow or stop your car. This can have catastrophic results.
Driving with worn brake pads can lead to other problems, too. Your car can be severely damaged and might need repairs that are considerably pricier than replacing your brake pads.
Even the most careful and maintenance-conscious drivers may encounter the three embarrassing “S’s” while driving—squeals, squeaks, and screeches—but noisy brakes can have far more dire consequences than people looking at you funny at traffic lights.
Here’s a rundown of how brake pads work, why (and when) you need to replace them, and how and why driving with worn brake pads can do so much damage to your car.

How brake pads work

When you step on your brake pedal, your brake pads are pushed down onto your brake rotors (also known as discs), and the resulting friction is what slows and ultimately stops your car.
Brake pads are small, flat blocks with high-friction material on one side. Most of the pad is made of steel, ceramic, or synthetic material (but steel is used in most cars).
Over time—usually, after 20,000 to 30,000 miles of driving or so—your brake pads will wear down to the point where their friction material is almost entirely gone. Once you have less than two millimeters of that material left, it’s time for new brake pads.
Replacing all four brake pads will usually cost you anywhere from $150 to $350. The brake pads themselves typically cost $30 to $150 for a set of four, and the rest of that expense goes to labor. 
If a repair shop quotes you at $500 or more, ask why and consider getting a second opinion (if your car is safe enough to drive away in). Unless you’re driving a Bentley, Ferrari, or some other exotic high-end car, that’s too much.

How to know if your brake pads are worn

Thankfully, you won’t need to try and guess if your car needs a brake pad replacement—your car will tell you when it needs new brake pads…in its own way, that is.
Here are the warning signs you need new brake pads:
  • Squealing or grinding sounds when you step on your brake pedal. This might also indicate dusty or dirty brake pads, but it’s something you want to get checked out by a professional immediately.
  • Reduced brake response, meaning you step on the brake pedal and the car isn’t slowing down or stopping like it normally does. This is a major indicator you may be driving with worn brake pads, or that there’s some other serious problem with your car’s braking system.
  • Vibrations or a pulsating sensation when you brake are usually clear indicators of worn brake pads or problems with at least one of your rotors.
  • A “spongy” brake pedal, meaning the pedal is softer than usual, always indicates a major problem with your brakes. It might be the brake pads, the rotors, brake fluid, or something else.
  • The car swerves a little when you brake. If your brake pads are more worn on one side of the car than the other, you’ll have reduced braking performance on the worn side, causing the car to mildly swerve when you’re braking.
  • The car literally tells you there’s a problem with an indicator light, a feature found on some (but not all) newer cars. You might see a ring with six dashes around it, or it might simply say “brakes.” Either way, this indicator light means you should take your car in for service immediately.
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Driving with worn brake pads can do serious damage to your car

Having trouble slowing or stopping your car is dangerous enough on its own that getting your car in for service should be your highest priority, but you should also note that driving with worn brake pads can also damage your brake system and tires. 
Your car’s braking system is complex, with lots of moving parts working together to ensure you’re able to stop safely. Worn brake pads pose a risk to every other one of those parts in this system.
Worn brake pads can cause severe damage to your rotors. Not only due to the steel-on-steel grinding, but also from the excessively high heat generated by this grinding. And they can also damage your brake calipers, which press the brake pads and rotors together. 
Driving with worn brake pads puts a lot of extra, unnecessary strain on your tires, too. You’ll need to use more hard braking to bring the car to a stop, which stresses your tires and can wear them out, sometimes unevenly.

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You won’t need to replace your brake pads often, but this is a form of vehicle maintenance every driver should expect to need, just like oil changes or replacing the tires. Your brake rotors will eventually need replacing, too (though thankfully those usually last a lot longer than brake pads do).
Regular vehicle maintenance is an important part of responsible driving, and having car insurance is a key factor in driving responsibly, too. With
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When your brake pads lose their friction material, the steel structure of the pad will grind against the brake rotor, causing sparks, high heat, and severe damage to the rotor. You’ll lose the ability to slow or stop the car, greatly increasing your risk of a car accident.
Driving with worn brake pads is always dangerous. Your car fundamentally loses its ability to slow down or stop, and the longer you drive with worn brake pads the more damage you’ll do to the braking system as a whole. If your car’s brake pads are worn out, get them replaced immediately.
Brake pads will typically last for 20,000 to 30,000 miles, but it’s possible to see them last even longer. Some drivers might not need them replaced until they hit the 80,000-mile mark. But if you live in an area with stop-and-go traffic, chances are you’ll be replacing them after 30,000 miles.
If you’re at 30,000 miles and still haven’t experienced any of the symptoms we listed earlier, get your brake pads checked out anyway to see what condition they’re in and how much longer they’ll last.
There are several different types of brake pads you can find on the market, including metallic, semi-metallic, and ceramic brake pads. Your mechanic will likely use whatever type of brake pads you had on the car originally. You can always consult your car’s user manual or contact the car’s manufacturer directly for more details.
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