How to tell if brake rotors are bad

Brake rotors are an essential part of any vehicle, and a critical component of the braking system. Typically constructed of metal, brake rotors are what your vehicle’s brake pads clamp onto in order to stop the wheels from spinning when the brakes are applied. The friction created by the pads camping the rotors are what help slow down the vehicle. Just like other components of your vehicle’s system, such as spark plugs and belts, brake rotors require maintenance and even replacement from time to time in order to keep your vehicle running in peak and safe condition.

brake rotors

Image courtesy of Pexels

How to Tell If Brake Rotors Are Bad

You can tell if your vehicle’s rotors are bad in a few different ways, including:

  • Vibrations
  • Discoloration
  • Screeching
  • Burning smell
  • Longer stopping distance
  • Excessive wear/length of service time

First, if you feel vibration or pulsing when you apply the brakes, that’s one telltale sign that your brake rotors are bad. You will typically feel pulsing in the brake pedal and vibration in the steering wheel. This occurs because the heat created when braking causes the rotors to become warped, worn, and uneven over time. Because your brake pads are pressing onto a surface that is no longer smooth, steering and braking no longer feel smooth either.

Another sign that it is time to replace your brake rotors is that there is a blue discoloration of the rotor surface. Like a vibrating brake pedal or steering wheel, this discoloration is also caused by heat damage to the rotor. This often occurs as the result of “riding the brake” especially in areas with hilly terrain. If you squat down and take a look at the rotor and it’s showing a blue tinge, it’s best to have your brakes inspected, as they could be compromised.

If your brakes make a screeching sound when you apply them, it could be a sign that your rotors are bad. The screeching is a result of grooves developing on the rotors over time, which then makes a loud, ear-piercing sound every time you apply the brakes.

Another sign your rotors are bad is that there is a burning smell when you apply the brakes — especially when applying sharp brakes on a steep road. This smell is caused by excessive friction in the braking system, which can warp or damage your rotors.

If your vehicle has bad rotors you may find it takes longer than typical to come to a stop. This is because groove marks on the rotor surface affect its ability to slow down the vehicle. You may also notice erratic behavior from the vehicle when trying to stop, such as pulling to one side.

Finally, the most obvious sign that your rotors are bad is simply that they have grooves and scoring over their surface. The easiest way to see this is to just bend down and take a look at the rotors yourself. You can also look back through your vehicle maintenance records to see when the last time you had your brakes serviced was, as an indication of whether or not it might be time to replace your rotors. Generally speaking, brake rotors need replacing every 15,000 to 70,000 miles.

What Wears Brake Rotors Out?

There are a few different things that will affect the speed at which your brake rotors wear over time, including your driving style, brake pad type, and vehicle.

If you’re someone who does a lot of heavy braking or tends to “ride the brake” — driving with the brakes even slightly engaged — you’ll wear through your rotors faster than someone with a more gentle driving style.

The type of pads you use will also affect how quickly your rotors wear. Most consumers prefer organic and metallic brake pads due to their budget-friendly price points, however, ceramic brake pads wear rotors more slowly, even if they come with a heftier price tag.

Finally, different vehicles wear through rotors at different rates, and there’s not much you can do about it, except adjust your driving style and be selective about replacement parts for your braking system.

How Long Can You Drive With Bad Rotors?

Replace Bad Rotors

Image courtesy of Pixabay

While you ideally want to replace your rotors as soon as you notice any trouble in order to avoid safety issues with your vehicle’s braking system, you can drive on bad rotors for a short period of time until you can have them replaced.1

It depends on a number of factors, including your driving style, the weight of your vehicle, and the quality of your vehicle’s brake material. However, because bad brake rotors may affect vehicle handling leading to accidents, you’ll want to change them as soon as possible.

Do Ceramic Brake Pads Wear Rotors Faster?

When compared to organic and metallic brake pads, ceramic brake pads actually wear rotors more slowly.2 This is because of a combination of things, but mostly due to the fact that they produce less dust and other particles over time as they wear down. They also provide for a quieter ride, which means smoother stopping and less wear over time. Ceramic brake pads are more expensive than organic and metallic brake pads, which may deter some vehicle owners from purchasing them, but are well worth the investment if you’re able to afford them. If you are replacing your old brake pads, you should consider recycling them with your mechanic. 3

How Long Do Performance Rotors Last?

The majority of mechanics agree that brake rotors should last at least 50,000 miles, and can last anywhere from 90,000-210,000 miles. When it comes to performance parts, however, that number is substantially decreased due to all the wear and tear placed on the components in the course of driving.

Telltale signs of bad brake rotors include vibrations, discoloration, screeching, burning smell, longer stopping distance, and excessive wear between servicing. If your brakes display any of these signs, it’s time to have your rotors checked.

Article Sources

Ride Digest uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. How Long Can You Drive With Bad Brake Rotors? Brakeexperts.com Updated 2021. Accessed 23 Sept 2021.
  2. Chan D, Stachowiak GW. Review of automotive brake friction materials. Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Part D: Journal of Automobile Engineering. 2004;218(9):953-966. doi:10.1243/0954407041856773
  3. Lyu Y, Ma J, Åström AH, Wahlström J, Olofsson U. Recycling of worn out brake pads ‒ impact on tribology and environmentSci Rep. 2020;10(1):8369. Published 2020 May 20. doi:10.1038/s41598-020-65265-w