What Does It Mean When The Brake Light Comes On?

Any time a dash warning light comes on in your vehicle is anxiety-inducing. Most drivers worry when they see a check engine light, but the brake warning light is arguably more concerning. Brakes keep you safe on the road, and if they are having issues, you should not delay getting them inspected.

The braking system amplifies the force of your foot on the pedal with a system of lines filled with hydraulic brake fluid. This amplified force clamps down on brake discs or activates a brake drum, converting your car’s kinetic energy to heat, and slowing it down.

While it is unlikely that your brakes have completely failed when the light comes on, it’s better to err on the side of caution. The light can come on for reasons ranging from benign to dangerous.

What causes the brake light to come on?

Brake warning light
Example of a possible brake warning light symbol

The brake warning light comes on when there is a fault in the braking system, just like the check engine light comes on when there is an engine malfunction. The light warns the driver of an issue, but further investigation is needed to determine the cause of the problem. Learn the most common causes for an illuminated brake warning light:

The emergency brake is still on

Emergency brakes vary by vehicle, but when a conventional lever or pedal E-brake is not released entirely, the brake warning light can come on. Some modern vehicles will beep if you are driving with the emergency brake engaged. To turn off the light, just fully release the E-brake.

Low brake fluid

The brake fluid reservoir sits on top of the master cylinder. The reservoir has a sensor that triggers the brake warning light when the fluid level falls too low. In most cars, it is found directly in front of the driver’s side of the car. Low brake fluid indicates a leak in the system, which can impact the effectiveness of the brakes.

Brake fluid resevoir

Sensor failure

A car’s braking system has sensors monitoring fluid level, E-brake position, and in some cases brake pad life. A failed sensor can trigger the brake warning light. A technician will need to look at your vehicle to determine whether the light is caused by a failed sensor or an actual issue with the braking system.

Brake pad life 

This cause is highly vehicle-dependent. Some cars have sensors that monitor the wear levels of your brake pads. If the pads wear out, the brake warning light can come on. Replacing your pads will turn off the lights. You may also hear a squealing noise when attempting to brake with low pad life, as brake pads have a metal wear indicator to produce this noise as a warning to replace them soon.

ABS issues

Anti-lock braking systems (ABS) often have dedicated warning lights. However, troubles with the ABS can trigger a brake warning light too. To diagnose an ABS issue, a mechanic will need to read the codes from the onboard computer, as ABS issues can be caused by anything from a single fuse to a sensor.

My brake light came on when I was driving, what should I do?

If you happen to be driving when the brake warning light first comes on, carefully pull over in a safe area and turn your car off. The first and easiest thing to check is your emergency brake. If the E-brake is fully released, get out of the car and check your brake fluid level. Add brake fluid to the reservoir if it’s low. If the light turns off, continue driving, and get your car to a shop to check for a fluid leak.

If both the e-brake is released and the fluid level is normal, call a tow truck and get your vehicle to a shop as soon as possible. Information from the computer and professional examination is needed to determine the cause of the problem.

Let the brake experts at Becker Service Center help!

Our technicians will quickly get to the bottom of your brake warning light and fix the problem, whether it’s a faulty sensor or a severe fluid leak. If you are having brake issues, give us a call or schedule an appointment today!