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How Long Do Brakes Last?

202404 how long do brakes last scaled jpg How long do brakes last | Cars.com illustration by Paul Dolan

How long brakes last largely depends on how the car is driven, but it can also depend on if the car has the ability for regenerative braking and the condition of the rest of the braking system. Here’s a look at how all of these factor into how long a car’s brakes last and what you can do to extend their lifetime.

Related: Brake Pads: What You Need to Know

How Driving Style Affects Brake Wear

Stop-and-go city driving is hard on a car’s brakes because they’re applied so often, and it can be even worse if you’re in rush-hour traffic on an expressway, where speeds can sometimes be higher. That matters because it takes more effort, wearing the brakes more, to slow from higher speeds. So, those occasional bursts of relief when traffic opens up a bit and the rapid slowing as traffic clogs again can be tough on brake wear.

If you drive a lot in the city or through rush-hour traffic, your brakes may last only 15,000 to 30,000 miles. By contrast, primarily highway driving — where the brakes are rarely applied — may allow the brakes to last 70,000 miles or more.

However, note that in either case, the front brakes usually wear much more quickly than the rear ones. That’s because there’s typically more weight over the front wheels, which increases when more of the car’s weight shifts forward under braking — adding more strain on the front brakes.

Brake wear can also be worse if you “ride the brakes” — that is, resting your left foot on the brake pedal, keeping the brakes lightly applied as you drive down the road. Hills also make a difference; it takes a lot more force, therefore wearing the brakes more, to stop a vehicle going downhill.

Regenerative Braking

Hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles all have at least one electric motor, and that motor allows for something called regenerative braking. Regenerative braking is possible because an electric motor (which produces rotational force) and a generator (which produces electricity) are mechanically very similar, and one can be turned into the other. When you’re accelerating or cruising, electricity is fed to the motor to produce the rotational force that drives the wheels. But when you lift off of the throttle, the rotational force of the wheels spins the motor, which has now been switched over to become a generator, producing electricity to recharge the battery.

Generators take power to turn, and in this case, that “power” comes from the car’s momentum turning the wheels, which slows the car down without having to apply the brakes. In fact, in many cars that offer regenerative braking, even pressing normally on the brake pedal doesn’t activate the actual brakes until the car has slowed nearly to a stop. As a result, the brakes tend to last far longer than those in conventional gas cars. Since brake replacement can be an expensive proposition, this — combined with better fuel economy, particularly in city driving — is why so many taxi and ride-share cars are hybrids or EVs.

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Condition of the Braking System

Most modern cars have disc brakes on all four wheels, though some older ones may have drum brakes in the rear. Disc brakes function much like the hand brakes on a bicycle. The rotor — a flat steel disc about the size of a dinner plate — turns with the wheels. When you brake, stationary pads about the size of your fist are squeezed against each side of the rotor by the caliper, which causes the wheel to slow and stop. The pads are the primary wearing component, though the rotors wear a bit, as well.

Most brake pads include a wear sensor that either causes a squealing sound or illuminates a light on the dashboard when the pads are getting thin. (The light can also indicate other problems with the braking system or just mean that the parking brake is applied.) If the pads wear all the way down, their metal backing plate ends up squeezing against the metal rotor, and that not only wears the rotor (and makes a horrible noise), it also results in longer stopping distances. Note that if the car hasn’t been driven in a while, slight rust on the rotors may also cause a squealing or light grinding sound, but it should go away after a few stops.

Better than waiting for a squeal to develop is to have the brakes inspected periodically, such as during an oil change or tire rotation. During a brake inspection, the technician can check the thickness of the pads to determine if it’s time to replace them.

It’s important that the technician inspecting the brakes checks both the inside and outside pads for each rotor, as a problem with the brake caliper can cause more pressure, and thus more wear, on one pad than the other. If this is the case, it’s best to catch it and fix the caliper earlier rather than later.

Other problems can also show up when braking. If either the steering wheel shudders or the brake pedal pulses when you apply the brakes, one or more rotors are likely warped. This can be caused by excessive heat generated because the caliper isn’t applying the inner and outer pads evenly, or it’s not allowing the pads to back off the rotor when the brakes are released. Pulling to one side under braking can also indicate a problem with a caliper.

What You Can Do to Extend Brake Life

As mentioned earlier, it takes more effort and wears the brake pads more to stop a vehicle from higher speeds than from lower ones. So, one thing that can extend the life of your brake pads is to coast down to a lower speed before hitting the brake pedal (even a 5-mph drop in speed can make a difference). That can be aided by leaving more of a gap between you and the car ahead, particularly in traffic — which is a good safety precaution anyway.

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