Brake Malfunction: Problems And Failure (Here Is How To Fix)

Brake Malfunction

Are your brakes not working properly? Is your vehicle’s dashboard screaming a ‘brake malfunction error’ at you? You’re smart.

You know just how important the brakes are in your vehicle. So, you want to fix them. You may even be wondering whether it is safe to drive with a brake malfunction error.

We are going to cover as much as possible here, hopefully saving you from a trip to the mechanic.

What Is a Brake Malfunction?

A brake malfunction means that there is something wrong with your braking system. However, an error doesn’t tell you specifically what the problem is. It could be caused by a whole host of issues including:

  • Drained or leaking brake fluid
  • Worn brake pads
  • Broken brake calipers
  • Misaligned brakes
  • Moisture in the braking system

We do want to point out that a brake malfunction doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a major issue with your braking system. Most of the time, there isn’t.

However, it is something that you are going to want to have looked at, or you could look at it yourself. 

Read also >> Here Is How To Fix a Brake Lamp Bulb Fault (Step by Step)

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Is It Safe To Drive With a Brake Malfunction Error?

We wouldn’t suggest it. 

While the chances of there being a major issue with your braking system are quite low, you still don’t want to drive when there is something wrong with the brakes.

You never know when the problem could get worse, and you really don’t want to be driving at a speed only to find that your braking system has stopped working completely.

As soon as a brake malfunction error appears on your dashboard, or you start to notice brake issues yourself, then deal with the problem quickly.

Some issues can be fixed at home, while others may need a trip to a dealership or the local mechanic. 

How Do You Clear a Brake Malfunction Error?

If you have a brake malfunction error on your dashboard, then the only way to clear the error is to fix the problem.

If you don’t fix that problem, then the error will keep coming back, even if it is just an intermittent error. It is incredibly rare that a brake issue will just clear up on its own. 

Diagnosing The Problem 

The simplest way to diagnose a brake malfunction error is to use an OBD-2 scanner. This useful device will allow you to read the vehicle’s computer for error codes.

These error codes will tell you the exact issue that needs to be fixed.

This is the same method that any garage or dealership will use to diagnose the problem. Use an OBD-2 scanner (they aren’t that expensive), and you can work out whether the problem is one that you can fix yourself.

If you don’t have an OBD-2 scanner to hand, then you can listen and ‘feel’ the brakes to see what the issue is.

Although, this is not an infallible method. You may not be able to diagnose the problem properly. 

How To Fix Brake Malfunction Errors

In this section, we want to go through the most common reasons behind a brake malfunction. We also want to give you advice on how to fix the problem.

We are, mostly, going to be focusing on dealing with problems from home here i.e. those issues where you don’t need to talk to a professional. 

Check Your Parking Brake  

If the brake malfunction error seems to occur when you start the vehicle and start driving, then the issue may be your parking brake. If the parking brake isn’t fully disengaged, then it can cause a grinding sound (not good for the vehicle!), and your vehicle will give an audio or visual warning.

So, if this error appears, double-check that the parking brake has been fully disengaged. You may need to give it an extra push.

If the brake doesn’t seem to be moving to a fully disengaged position, then you may need to talk to an expert. That isn’t a problem that you can rectify yourself. 

Overheated Brakes

If the brake issues are occurring after driving for a while, then you may have overheated brakes. You can often smell when the brakes are overheating (a rubbery smell, sometimes a chemical smell).

Park the vehicle up for a while and allow them to cool down. Driving with overheating brakes is dangerous. 

Battery Issues

If you have an old battery in your vehicle, then replace it. A car battery is only good for 5-6 years.

You can also try to charge your battery. You will need a battery charger for that.

This is likely to be the issue if you are noticing other electrical systems in your vehicle aren’t working quite as expected. 

Brake Lights

Sometimes the parking brake malfunction issue is incredibly easy to fix. If your vehicle’s brake lights are not working, then a malfunction error will appear. How you fix this will depend on why your brake lights are not working.

If only one light isn’t working, then there is a good chance that the problem is with a bulb. To fix this, unscrew the old bulb and put a replacement in.

If no brake lights are working, then it is likely to be a wiring issue. Consult your vehicle’s manual to see where the brake light wiring harness is.

Once you have located the wiring harness, check whether there is any damage to the wires. If there are, you can replace the harness. 

Check and Replace Brake Fluid

This is something that should be done during your vehicle’s annual service. However, if you haven’t been keeping up with your vehicle’s service, then you may need to replace the brake fluid.

First things first, make sure that you buy the right fluid for your vehicle.

Your vehicle’s manual should list the exact type of fluid that you should be using. You can then do the following:

  1. Find the brake fluid master cylinder in your vehicle. Check the manual to know exactly where it is.
  2. Drain as much of the old brake fluid as possible.
  3. Fill the brake fluid up to the ‘max fill’ line. Close the brake fluid master cylinder. 
  4. Jack the vehicle up.
  5. Ask somebody to press the brakes pedal lightly in your vehicle.
  6. Open up the nipple on each of the brake’s calipers and allow the old fluid to drain out.
  7. Seal up the nipple as soon as the old fluid has drained.
  8. Repeat for the other three brakes.
  9. Fill up the brake fluid master cylinder again.
  10. Repeat steps 5 to 9 until the fluid for each brake is clear.
  11. Pump the brakes around twenty times.
  12. Refill the brake fluid master cylinder up to the fill line.

It is quite an in-depth process, but an important one, and should fix most brake malfunction issues. 

Replace Brake Pads

If you have noticed a grinding sound coming from your brakes, or the brakes feel too ‘soft’ when you hit the brake, then there is a chance that the brake pads need to be replaced.

Brake pads will wear down over time. They can also wear down if something gets trapped in them e.g. a chunk of metal, or maybe a stone.

In the latter case, you may find that the brake malfunction issue will clear up once the blockage is removed from the brake pad (this should happen when you are driving).

If you need to replace the brake pads yourself, then follow this process (make sure that you buy the right brake pads for your vehicle!):

  1. Chock your vehicle
  2. Jack the vehicle
  3. Remove the wheel (or wheels, if replacing all the brake pads)
  4. Unbolt the brake calipers so they swing free.
  5. Remove the old pads
  6. If you notice rust on the rotor (the part where the brake pads are mounted), then clear it off with a wire brush. You can use WD-40 to help.
  7. Fit the new brake pads in place.
  8. Put the brake caliper back into place. 
  9. Put the wheel back on.

You may also want to check the brake fluid level at the same time.

When you are testing out your new brake pads, make sure that you drive in a safe area at a slow speed.

If you notice any sticking, or the brake pads don’t seem to be engaging at all, then you may have fitted them incorrectly (they may not have clipped into place properly). Either repeat the process or call in an expert. 

When To Talk To An Expert

Other brake issues should be left in the capable hands of an expert. For example, if your vehicle seems to be veering to one side when you brake, it could indicate that the brake calipers are broken. If the brakes are not engaging at all, then there may be an issue with the vehicle’s computer or the brake cables. 

Yes, we know that it is going to be expensive to talk to a mechanic. However, trust us, it is going to be a lot cheaper than what could happen if a brake malfunction error is not dealt with!

Thankfully, the chances of you needing to speak to a mechanic are slim. Most brake issues can be fixed at home, even if you do not have a ton of knowledge about working with vehicles.

If you need further advice on dealing with your specific vehicle, then make sure that you consult your vehicle’s manual. It will tell you how to refill the brake fluid, change the brake pads, etc.

Final Thoughts 

A brake malfunction doesn’t always mean that you have a serious problem with your vehicle. In most cases, it will be a damaged brake light or a parking brake that hasn’t fully disengaged.

Other issues may require you to replace a brake pad. All of these jobs can be performed at home. It is rare that you will need to take your vehicle to a professional. 


Steve P.

Steve is an automotive technician, technical writer, and Managing Editor. He has held a lifelong passion for cars, with a particular interest in cars like the Buick Riviera. Steve is based in Boise, Idaho.

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