You press the brake pedal, and the car stops. Sure, that's the gist of your braking system, but it's far more complex than that. With numerous moving parts, hydraulic fluids, and friction materials making up this system, it's easy to get confused by them. 

As a car owner who's wondering how long do car brakes last, you're generally concerned about the brake pads and rotors or brake shoes and drums. Below, we'll outline how long brakes last and ways you can make them last as long as possible. 

But first, we'll give you an overview of how your car's braking system works.   

How Do Car Brakes Work?

Before diving into the longevity of car brakes, let's get a high-level overview of how your car's brake system works. 

When you press the brake pedal, it activates the brake booster, which is driven by your vehicle's vacuum system, which presses the plunger in on the brake master cylinder. This pressure from the plunger pressurizes the brake fluid, which activates the brake callipers in a disc brake setup or wheel cylinders in a drum brake setup. 

The callipers or wheel cylinder activation presses the brake pads or brake shoes onto the friction surface on the brake rotor or drum to stop the vehicle. Brake pads wear out because the heat and friction in this process eat away at the friction material on the pads. This also eats away at the brake rotor or drum but at a far slower rate. 

Over time, the brake pads and shoes and the brake drum and rotor wear to a point where they need replacing. The general rule is to replace the pads when only 2.5 mm of friction material remains on the pad. Let's see just how long it takes before you need new brake pads. 

How Long Do Brake Pads Last? 

Determining the lifespan of your brakes is tricky because many variables come into play, including the type of brake pads you use, the type of driving you do, the driving conditions, and how aggressively you drive. 

As a rule of thumb, brake pads can last between 40,000 and 105,000 km, but it's not totally out of the question to see them lasting 125,000 km or more. Let's explore some of the variables that can impact how long your brakes last. 

Brake Pad Type

There are three main types of brake pads on the market today, and each has its own benefit. The main difference between these three types is the brake pad material, which can significantly impact longevity. 

When you perform a brake pad replacement, the parts store, service center, or dealership will usually offer at least two of the three pad types. 

Organic Brake Pads

Organic brake pads are made from a wide range of natural materials, such as rubber, carbon, fibreglass, and more all held together by resin. These pads are often the cheapest option and offer adequate stopping power for most passenger cars. However, they're a relatively soft pad and wear the fastest of all the pad types. 

Semi-Metallic Brake Pads 

Semi-metallic pads are among the most common options, as they provide a nice balance of longevity and cost. These pads are generally slightly more expensive than organic pads and last far longer because they are harder and more tolerant to high temperatures than organic pads. 

Because they contain metal, semi-metallic pads are more prone to squealing noises. 

Ceramic Brake Pads 

Ceramic pads and carbon-ceramic brakes are the top-of-the-line options, as they not only have excellent heat tolerance but also last the longest and produce minimal visible brake dust and noise. They also put the least stress on your brake discs, helping extend your rotors' lives.

The downside is ceramic pads are the most expensive of the group. 

Brake Pad Position

The brake pad's position on the car also impacts its longevity. In nearly every vehicle, the front brakes take the brunt of the stress when braking, and the rear brakes just help level out the vehicle by preventing nose-diving. This added stress on the front brakes usually leads you to change the front brake pads two to three times more often than the rear pads.

Driving Conditions

The conditions you drive in can also significantly impact brake pad life. If your daily commute is an open road with no traffic and minimal stops, your brakes could last significantly longer than average. However, if you're like most of us and deal with stop-and-go traffic every day, you may run through your brake pads and rotors significantly faster. 

Driving Style

Your driving style can also significantly affect how often you need brake repairs. Some driving styles extend brake life, while others can cut down their lifespan. 

Driving Styles That Reduce Brake Pad Lifespan

Some driving styles that can make your brakes wear out quickly are as follows: 

  • Two-Foot Driving: No matter how many driving teachers tell them not to, some drivers just feel more comfortable driving with two feet -- one for the accelerator pedal and one hovering over the brake pedal. In some cases, the foot hovering over the brake pedal can contact the pedal, causing slight friction between the pads and brake rotors, which can heat up the pads and make them wear out quicker. 
  • Hard braking: If you wait until the last possible second to hit the brakes, then have to brake hard to stop in time, this is putting your brakes under sudden and extreme stress. Too much of this can significantly reduce brake pad life. 
  • Frequent Towing: The added weight of towing a trailer increases the heat and stress the braking endures, which can lead to your brake pads and rotors wearing out quicker than normal. 

Driving Styles That Extend Brake Pad Lifespan

Just like driving styles eat up brake pads quicker, some driving habits can extend brake pad life. 

  • Following at a safe distance: Keeping a safe distance between you and the car ahead of you not only prevents accidents, but it also reduces the chances you'll have to slam on the brake pedal to stop before you cause an accident. This means you can brake gently and consistently, which can extend your brake pads' life. 
  • Frequent highway driving: Staying on the highway and off surface streets usually reduces the amount of stop-and-go driving, which can greatly reduce the stress and wear on your brake pads.
  • Downshifting (manual transmission only): In a vehicle with a manual transmission, you can slow the vehicle with well-timed downshifts. The engine will handle the initial slowing of the vehicle for you, reducing the stress on the brakes. 

Indicators You May Need New Brake Pads

While knowing how long your brakes will last is difficult, there are tell-tale signs that indicate it may be time for brake service. 

Consistent Screeching Noise

Some brake pads include a small metal tab angled toward the friction material. This tab is designed to touch the brake rotor once the pads wear beyond their serviceable life, creating a consistent, high-pitch squeal. If you hear this noise, use a brake pad measuring tool to verify the pads need replacing or have a professional inspect your brakes. 

Grinding Noise When Braking

If you wait too long to change your brake pads, you may start hearing a grinding noise. This is the sound of the brake pad's metal backing plate pressing against the brake rotor or drum. This causes many issues, including overheated brake fluid and excessive rotor wear. Often, if you hear this noise, you not only need new brake pads, but you'll need new rotors too. 

Vibration When Braking

If you feel a vibration in the steering wheel or seat when braking, this may indicate your brake pads are wearing unevenly and need replacing. However, this can also be a warped rotor or simply material transfer from the pads to the rotors causing a high spot. A professional inspection can verify the issue.  

At Clutch, We've Got the Brakes Covered

All our quality pre-owned vehicles at Clutch, Canada's first online car-buying experience, have been through a 210-point inspection and reconditioning process to ensure they're in top shape. This process includes checking the brakes and performing a brake service if needed. 

This will give you peace of mind that you have plenty of life in your brake pads. 

Our pre-owned vehicles also come with a 10-day test-own period, giving you plenty of time behind the wheel to fall in love with your new Clutch vehicle. If you don't love it within those 10 days, you can return the vehicle for a full refund or exchange it for another vehicle. Plus, all Clutch vehicles purchased online include a 90-day or 6,000-km limited warranty for even more peace of mind.