Why Does Your Car Shake When You Brake?

No, it’s not because you have The Harlem Shake stuck on repeat

A Porsche 911 showing off it's brake rotors.
Depositphotos

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If you had any doubts, no, your car’s steering wheel shouldn’t feel like a display product for As Seen On TV’s “Shake Weight. Vibrations severe enough for you to notice equate to your car’s natural warning notification and can be the result of various issues that you need to fix ASAP. 

Along with brake pad, caliper, and rotor issues, your car Harlem Shaking down the block may also be caused by suspension and tire issues that affect your car’s safety. 

Diagnosing the exact culprit can seem impossible to those who aren’t adept in the ways of a mechanic. Don’t worry, The Drive’s info team is here to help. Let’s figure it out and fix it!

A rotor and set of brake pads.
Depositphotos

A rotor and set of brake pads.

Why Does Your Car Shake When You Brake? 

Unless you’re gifted with the ability to diagnose a car instantly like a Formula 1 engineer, you’ll likely need to diagnose the problem by process of elimination. By doing so, you can eliminate a host of likely suspects. However, even compiling a list can be daunting. 

That’s why The Drive’s editors put together this shortlist of the most common reasons why your car shakes when you brake. 

Warped Brake Rotors 

In a car’s braking system, a brake caliper applies pressure to a brake pad which clamps down on a brake rotor. Warped brake rotors occur when the caliper and pad are applied to the rotor in uneven pressure or when the rotor becomes so hot that the metal becomes distorted. When you brake on a warped rotor, the car will shake, as the metal is no longer straight.

Stuck Brake Caliper

Either stuck clamping the rotor or open and not clamping the rotor at all, a stuck brake caliper can produce shaking when you apply the brakes as you’re applying uneven pressure to the rotors. 

Air Trapped In the Brake Lines

If air gets into a brake line, it can produce uneven pressure across the brake calipers and pads, which could make the car shake when you apply the brakes. 

Worn Brake Pads

Your average brake pad is engineered to last about 50,000 miles, though driving styles, use, and environmental factors affect their longevity. Hard stops, sharp stabs, and poorly modulated left-foot braking can affect your brake pads’ health. Other variables include faulty brake calipers, the air in your hydraulic brake lines, or leaving your car sitting for more than a year.

As such, a worn brake pad, or a pad that wore asymmetrically, could produce a pulsating feeling and cause the front of your car to shake when you apply the brakes.

Out-of-Round Drum Brakes

When the drums on older vehicles are out-of-round, or unevenly worn, applying the brakes can cause vibrations to come through the steering wheel. 

The wheel removed and the brakes accessible.
Depositphotos

The wheel removed and the brakes accessible. 

How To Replace Brake Rotors and Brake Pads

If your uneven brake pads and/or rotors leave you feeling tumble dried, it’s time for a replacement.

Let’s do this.

Brake Change Safety

Working on your car can be dangerous and messy, so here’s exactly what you’ll need to ensure you don’t die, get maimed, or lose a finger and keep your jeans, shirt, and skin spotless—hopefully.

A brake rotor.
Depositphotos

A brake rotor.

What You’ll Need To Replace Brake Rotors and Brake Pads

We’re not psychic, nor are we snooping through your toolbox or garage, so here’s exactly what you’ll need to get the job done. 

Tool List 

Parts List 

Organizing your tools and gear so everything is easily reachable will save precious minutes waiting for your handy-dandy child or four-legged helper to bring you the sandpaper or blowtorch. (You won't need a blowtorch for this job. Please don’t have your kid hand you a blowtorch—Ed.)

You’ll also need a flat workspace, such as a garage floor, driveway, or street parking. Check your local laws to make sure you’re not violating any codes when using the street because we aren’t getting your ride out of the slammer or paying any fines. 

Let’s do this. 

  1. Loosen the lug nuts on the front two wheels.
  2. For better clearance, lift up the front end of your vehicle.
  3. Place jack stands on the frame at the front of the car.
  4. Remove the first wheel.
  5. Locate the brake caliper’s mounting bolts. They’ll be on the rear of the caliper.
  6. Remove the mounting bolts. 
  7. Remove the anti-rattle clip by prying it off with a flathead screwdriver. It may fly off, so be careful.
  8. You can now slide the caliper off the rotor. Rest the caliper on the top rotor so it’s not hanging by the brake line.
  9. The caliper’s mounting bracket will stay in place. 
  10. Remove the brake rotor.
  11. Remove the brake pads.
  12. The brake caliper piston, the piece that pushes the brake pad into the rotor, may be extended. Using the face clamp pliers, put one side of the plier’s grip on the piston, and the other side on the caliper’s steel backing.
  13. Press the piston into the caliper until it sits flush. Go slow, and be sure not to damage the piston’s rubber. 
  14. Take the inboard brake pad, the one with a retaining clip on its backing, and place a small amount of brake pad lubricant on the back of it.
  15. Press into the piston’s opening until it locks in place.
  16. Take the outboard brake pad and place a small amount of brake pad lubricant on the back of it.
  17. Insert the new brake rotor. 
  18. Rest the outboard brake pad on the caliper mounting bracket that’s still attached to the rotor.
  19. Slide the caliper with the onboard brake pad attached back onto the mounting bracket with the outboard brake caliper.
  20. Lubricate the caliper’s mounting bolts, but not the threads, and reinstall them.
  21. Reattach the anti-rattle clip.
  22. Repeat the steps for the other wheels.
  23. Reattach the wheels and hand-tighten the lug nuts.
  24. Raise the jack enough to remove jack stands.
  25. Lower the vehicle.
  26. Torque the lug nuts to their manufacturer’s designated specification.
  27. Pop the car’s hood and remove the brake fluid cap.
  28. Pump brakes to make sure braking pressure returned and air is out of the system 

You’re all done!

BMW brakes seen through its aftermarket wheel.
Depositphotos

BMW brakes seen through its aftermarket wheel.

Get Help With Brake Issues From a Mechanic On JustAnswer

The Drive recognizes that while our guides are detailed and easily followed, a rusty bolt, an engine component not in the correct position, or oil leaking everywhere can derail a project. That’s why we’ve partnered with JustAnswer, which connects you to certified mechanics around the globe, to get you through even the toughest jobs. 

So if you have a question or are stuck, click here and talk to a mechanic near you.

FAQs About Shaking While Braking

You’ve got questions, The Drive has answers.

Q. Can A Bad Ball Joint Cause Shaking When Braking?

A. Yes, it can. A bad ball joint would cause slight vibrations, especially if you’re braking from high speeds. However, the effect wouldn’t be as noticeable as the more common brake issues detailed above. If you feel a heavy vibration, you’re likely not dealing with a bad ball joint. 

Q. Can Wheel Alignment Cause Vibration When Braking?

A. Yes, it can! If done improperly, a bad wheel alignment can cause vibrations when braking as the tires aren’t inline with one another. This will cause the car to not only be unstable but also wear out unevenly. 

Additionally, new tires that aren’t balanced properly can also cause steering vibrations as well as uneven wearing. But unlike the brake issues above, you’ll feel both poor alignment or unbalanced tires all the time, not just under braking.

Q. Is Brake Shudder Dangerous?

A. It can be. Brake shudder could mean you don’t have equal or adequate braking pressure and might affect your stopping distance.