What Causes Pulsating With My Car’s Brakes?

According to a study by the Ohio State Highway Patrol, brake failures caused 20% of defect-related crashes in the state between 2019 and 2023. 

While the overall risk of your brakes failing mid-ride remains statistically low, the study is a powerful reminder to stay vigilant with car maintenance. Understanding the signs that something may be wrong with your vehicle, especially your brakes, empowers you to take proactive safety measures. 

In this blog post, we’ll explore one of the most common signs that your brakes need attention — pulsation. 

  • What is brake pulsation? 
  • Common causes of pulsation. 
  • How to prevent pulsation. 
  • Other signs of brake issues. 
  • When to replace your rotors.  

What Is Brake Pulsation? 

As you press down on the brake pedal and the car slows to a stop, you might feel a vibration or pulsing under your foot. You may also feel the same sensation through the steering wheel or elsewhere in the vehicle. This is known as brake pulsation. 

You’re most likely to feel pulsing in your brakes or steering wheel after you’ve been driving for a bit and your brakes are warmed up.

Common Causes of Brake Pulsation

The most common cause of pulsation is a discrepancy with the rotor surface. This can be caused by a number of issues with the braking system, such as: 

Warped rotors. If you take a close look at your rotors, you might be able to spot blue or blackish areas. These irregularities are known as hotspots and create an uneven surface on your rotors, meaning they can’t make clean contact with the brake pads, leading to vibration or pulsation. 

The main cause of warped rotors is overheating. This is caused by issues with the rotors themselves, other brake components, or excessive stop-and-start traffic that applies excess heat to the rotors. 

Worn brake pads. Brake pads typically last between 30,000 and 70,000 miles before needing to be replaced. If your brake pads wear down too much, they will stop doing their job, which is to create the necessary friction to slow down and stop your vehicle. This uneven wear can cause pulsation when you press on the brakes. 

Rust accumulation. If brake pads are caked with rust or debris, it can restrict smooth movement of the pads and cause uneven contact with the rotor. 

The location of the vibration gives you a clue as to where the problem is. If you feel vibrating and pulsing in your steering wheel, it’s likely you have an issue with your front brake rotors. If you feel shaking from the rear or in your seat, the damage is likely in the rear.  

Are Pulsating Brakes Dangerous? 

Yes; any issue with your car’s braking system should be taken seriously. Pulsating is a sign that something is amiss and needs immediate attention. Ignoring it can put you at risk and cause additional damage to your vehicle, leading to more expensive repairs. 

Some of the primary safety concerns around pulsating brakes include: 

  • Reduced ability to stop quickly 
  • Increased stopping distances 
  • Uneven wear on your brake components 
  • In extreme cases, total brake failure 

If you feel pulsating or vibrating, schedule an appointment right away with a trusted technician. 

How to Prevent Brake Pulsation

Once your rotors are warped, the damage is done and they will need to be replaced. There are steps you can take to keep your brakes as healthy as possible for as long as possible. 

Don’t ride the brakes. Hotspots on rotors are caused by overheating. When you ride the brakes for long periods of time, especially when going downhill, you’re generating more friction and in turn more heat. 

Stop responsibly. Slamming on the brakes can cause damage to your brakes. Try to anticipate stops and come to a stop slowly. 

Give your brakes a rest. If you’ve been using your brakes excessively in start-stop traffic or while navigating a long hill, try to give them a rest by driving at a steady pace. This will allow the components to cool down.

Avoid overloading your vehicle. Hauling or towing heavy equipment puts added stress on your brakes. If you do pull a trailer, make sure it is equipped with an independent braking system. 

Get regular maintenance checks. Regular brake inspections by an expert technician are the best way to catch brake issues, including rotor damage before they become larger and more expensive. 

Use high-quality parts. When replacing brake components, choose the best quality product for your vehicle. High-quality brake pads and rotors are designed to withstand higher levels of heat and often last longer than lower-quality parts. 

ABS and Pulsating

When you’re driving in icy or wet conditions and hit the brakes, you may feel what could be described as pulsating as your car’s anti-lock braking system (ABS) engages. The ABS is designed to quickly change the pressure of the brake fluid going to each cylinder, which in turn applies and releases the brakes. 

ABS prevents tires from locking up or spinning and helps you regain control. Don’t confuse ABS for brake pulsation — the latter requires a trip to your local mechanic, and the former is your car doing its job to keep you safe.  

Other Signs Your Brakes Need Attention

Pulsation is one symptom of faulty or failing brake components, but there are others you should watch (and listen) for that may indicate an issue. 

  • Grinding. If you can hear grinding, the pads have completely worn away, and the rotors are damaging each other. Driving any longer can result in needing total brake replacement, which is incredibly expensive.
  • Pulling. If your vehicle pulls to one side when you brake, the pads have worn unevenly. Replacing them all is quick and affordable.
  • Squealing. Squealing is often due to the feeler striking the rotor when the pads grow too thin.
  • Fading. If your brakes feel spongy or like they’re sinking when you apply them, there’s a possible issue with your brake fluid. 

When to Replace Rotors

Every vehicle is different, but the general rule is to replace rotors every 50,000 and 70,000 miles. Of course, if you notice pulsation or other issues like pulling unusual noises, increased stopping distance, or your brake warning light comes on, bring your car in for an inspection to see if your rotors need to be replaced. 
Don’t risk brakes failing when you need them most. Our expert technicians will check your brakes and other systems top-to-bottom, diagnose any issues and recommend repairs to ensure a safe ride.

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