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Brake Shudder: Understanding Car Vibrations When Braking

Brake shudder is a problem that can really put the brakes on your driving experience. If you’ve ever experienced your car vibrating and shaking when you hit the brakes, then you know exactly what we’re talking about. But fear not, because, in this article, we’re going to give you the lowdown on brake shudder and how to put the brakes on it. So buckle up and get ready to slam the brakes on this pesky problem!

What Causes Brake Shuddering, Shaking, and Pulsing on My Car or Truck?

Why Does My Car Vibrate When Braking?

All vehicles vibrate at some point. It’s normal to feel the engine rumbling. However, other vibrations aren’t normal. Tremors could result from something simple like a slight tire imbalance to something significant like problems with the steering system.

When your car vibrates significantly when braking, something is wrong with the brake system. The term for the vibration when applying brake pressure is brake shudder. Although this usually isn’t an immediate cause of concern, it’s not something you want to put off checking out, either.

What Causes Brake Shudder?

Brake shudder, also called brake judder, is the vibration you feel when applying the brakes at certain speeds. The steering wheel and suspension will “shudder” at various levels. Sometimes you barely feel it, while other times, it could be pretty violent. This happens for several different reasons. So let’s take a closer look.

Foot on brake peddle
While your car will vibrate naturally, major shuddering when braking is not a good sign.

Where you feel the car vibrating when braking will determine whether the front or rear brakes are to blame. Usually, when the steering wheel shakes, it results from problems with the front brakes. On the other hand, when you feel shuddering only in the brake pedal, it’s generally a result of problems with the rear brakes.

The actual cause of the vibration can be a number of different parts of the braking system. The most common cause of vibration is an issue with the rotors or drums but it could also be brake pads or caliper issues.

Damaged Rotors or Drums

The most common cause of brake judder is damaged rotors or drums. Brake rotors and drums are two different types of components that are part of a vehicle’s braking system.

Brake rotors, also known as brake discs, are flat, circular metal discs that are attached to the wheel hub. When the brake pads clamp down on the rotors, the friction generated slows down or stops the vehicle.

Brake drums, on the other hand, are cylindrical-shaped components that are attached to the wheel hub in drum brakes. When the brake shoes press against the inside of the drum, the resulting friction slows down or stops the vehicle.

drum vs disc brake graphic
The drum brake on the left is a cutaway showing the brake pads, on the right is the disc brake with the pads inside the caliper hanging over it.

Over time, rotors or drums can warp as a result of heat and cooling cycles. When you brake, the friction produces a lot of heat. During a panic stop or descent down a long hill, this heat can get so high that it’s even possible to get the metal red hot! Due to heat differences when the pads are touching the brakes or the potential to cool the brakes quickly due to a puddle on the road its possible to warp the metal. This warping will make the rotors or drums out of round and cause a side-to-side wobble or up-down wobble when the pads press on them. This is what you can feel in the car.

In addition to warping due to heat, additional damage like a crack or even a dent from a rock can damage rotors and drums. Because of this its important to inspect them to determine of they are the problem.

worn down brake rotor
This brake rotor has a deep groove worn in it where the pads ride. This wear should not be this deep and can cause many issues

Caliper Malfunction

A brake caliper is a component in the disc braking system. It’s a clamp that grabs onto the rotor so that when you apply the brakes, the friction stops the wheel from turning. Inside a caliper is the brake pad. All these components work in tandem to slow down your vehicle. So when a caliper isn’t functioning correctly, your car might vibrate when braking.

It’s rare to replace a caliper as it typically lasts the lifetime of the vehicle, but it could be a cause of brake shudder. A sticking caliper will cause the brake pad to only apply to half of the rotor, causing uneven wear. Just like with a damaged rotor, if the brake pad can’t fully contact the rotor to brake smoothly, the car can vibrate.

Brake caliper location diagram

Brake Pad Issues

Brake pads have a crucial function in the braking experience. When they wear down unevenly or wear out completely they can cause uneven braking. Worn brake pads aren’t always a result of problems with the rotor or caliper, however. Sometimes they’re so soiled with dirt, oil, and other debris that they become warped or damaged. You might also hear a squeaking sound and vibrations indicating you need a brake pad replacement.

Pro Tip: Time for some RV repair work? These are 5 Red Flags to Watch for With an RV Repair Shop.

brake pads completly worn down
Left is a new brake pad, right is a completely worn one. If the pads get this worn, they can damage rotors and cause vibrations or even brake failures.

What Causes Brake Problems?

Most brake problems are the result of use over time. The general wear and tear of the braking system will lead to brake pad or rotor replacement. These are maintenance items required over the lifetime of the vehicle.

But there are also factors related to driving that can cause brake problems. You’ve probably seen runaway truck ramps in mountain passes. Sometimes the brakes will overheat when applied over long periods due to the constant friction of the brake pad on the rotor. This is why many truckers will use lower gear when descending a steep grade. RVers will do the same, and many have dedicated engine brakes that use the engine to slow the vehicle.

On the other hand, rapid cooling can also cause brake problems. Proper brake cooling is just as crucial as avoiding warping. If you suddenly drive through a puddle with hot brakes or spray them with water its possible to warp or crack the rotors.

Finally, lack of maintenance can lead to brake issues. Proper vehicle maintenance can increase the life of a vehicle. But when you avoid or forget about routine tasks and inspections, you can run into all kinds of problems. Worn-out brakes or damaged brake pads can lead to severe consequences because you can’t stop as quickly. If your car vibrates when braking, this isn’t something to ignore.

trucks cool brakes sign on highway
There are places where its actually advised to pull over to cool brakes on large vehicles

Can You Drive With Brake Shudder?

You can drive with brake shudder, but you shouldn’t for long. Make an appointment with your automotive technician or inspect your brakes your self if you are confident. It can be dangerous if you continue to drive with vibrations because the braking performance will deteriorate. If your braking system isn’t functioning correctly, you’re playing with fire.

Foot on brake
If you notice your car vibrating when you are braking, call your mechanic as soon as possible.

How Do You Fix a Car That Vibrates When Braking? 

Since there are only a few pieces to the braking system in a vehicle, there are some components you would need to replace if your car vibrates when braking. You either need new brake pads or new rotors. You may also need a new caliper, but that’s unlikely.

New Brake Pads

Because brake pads warp due to dirt and oil or wear down due to general usage, you must replace them several times throughout the vehicle’s life. When you experience brake shudder and realize you need to replace the brake pads, always break them in properly. This creates an even layer of friction material deposited on the rotors. Your car will stop much faster and smoother when this layer is already on the rotor.

Replace Rotors

If the rotors warp, then you’ll need to replace them. Usually, this also entails replacing the brake pads because the misshapen rotors have caused uneven wear on the pads. Even if the brake pads haven’t worn down, it’s always good to replace them when you replace the rotors. Old brake pads on new rotors won’t have the same contact because of the smooth surface of the new rotors.

Pro Tip: If you tow a trailer, you’ll need one of these 6 Best Trailer Brake Controllers for RVs and Campers

Replacing pads and rotors on ram 3500 
We have done a lot of break work over the years, this is a full rotor and pad replacement on our ram 3500 truck that had to stop a very heavy fifth wheel

Will an Alignment Fix Brake Shudder? 

An alignment will not fix brake shudder vibrations, as brake shudder is caused by issues with the brake system itself. As we discussed above the problems with the braking systems are what cause shudder.

Alignment, on the other hand, refers to the adjustment of the angles of the wheels so that they are in the correct position relative to each other and the vehicle. Proper alignment can help ensure even tire wear, improve handling, and prevent steering issues, but it is not directly related to brake performance.

How Much Does It Cost to Fix Brakes?

The cost to fix brakes can vary depending on a number of factors, such as the type of vehicle, the extent of the damage, and the type of brake system. For standard cars, the cost of replacing brake pads typically ranges from $100 to $300 per axle, depending on the type of pads and the complexity of the installation. Brake rotors usually range from $300 to $600 per axle, depending on the type of rotors and the labor costs involved.

It’s important to note that these are rough estimates, and the actual cost of brake repairs can vary depending on a variety of factors. A small car will cost far less than a large truck or bus. In our 45 foot motorhome, brake pads could cost over $1000! Additionally, labor costs can vary significantly depending on the mechanic and the location of the repair shop. It’s always a good idea to get multiple quotes from reputable mechanics before deciding on a repair.

How to Replace Brake Pads and Rotors (COMPLETE Guide)

Have a Safe and Comfortable Ride Without Brake Shudder

Brake shudder isn’t something to ignore. It’s best not to avoid brake maintenance, either. Take care of your vehicle to save money and time and to drive safely. When your car eventually vibrates when braking, don’t delay visiting an automotive shop. Brake shudder is familiar, but it can be dangerous.

Have you experienced vibrations when braking? Tell us about your experience in the comments!

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About Tom Morton

Tom, a Pacific Northwest native, is our technical genius. Born in Washington and raised in Alaska before settling in Michigan. He's the man who keeps our operation running, both figuratively and literally.

With a background in Electrical Engineering, Tom specializes in RV solar systems and lithium batteries. He made history as the first documented individual to use a Tesla battery module as an RV battery. Tom has personally assisted countless RVers with system installations and has educated thousands more through his videos and articles.

Cinematography is another of Tom's passions, showcased in his work on the Go North series. You can see his camera skills on display in The RVers TV show on Discovery Channel and PBS where he also stars as a co-host.

Tom's mechanical expertise extends beyond RVs to boats, planes, and all things mechanical. He's renowned for taking on maintenance and repair projects single-handedly and is often spotted underneath RVs, making him the technical backbone of our endeavors.

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