What Does the Smell of Burning Brakes Mean?

Are Your Brakes Bringing the Heat?

Any time you smell burning while driving your car, it’s cause for alarm. There are a few reasons why you might catch a whiff of burning when you’re using your brakes, and they aren’t all bad. Regardless, if you smell burning, it’s a good idea to have a trusted mechanic take a look, even if it could be a simple problem.

What Could The Burning Smell Mean?

The cause of a burning smell from your brakes will depend on what you’re doing, where you’re driving, and how long it’s been since they were last serviced. Given the number of factors involved, let’s look at a few possible causes.

Overheating Brakes

Aggressive braking can cause brakes to overheat. This is especially common with mountain driving, so you should pay attention to how often and how hard you are using your brakes. The friction between your brake pads and rotors brings your car to a stop. That same friction also generates heat. Other possible symptoms that may appear if this is your problem include squeaking or squealing and even a spongy brake pedal.

If you suspect your brakes are overheating, don’t push it. You should pull over and let them cool down, otherwise you risk boiling your brake fluid and causing brake failure. This is especially common driving in the mountains, so don’t be afraid to pull to the side of the road if it happens to you.


image of a yellow brake caliper in wheel of Ferrari

New Brakes

When you get new brake pads, sometimes there can be an associated smell for a few days that is actually harmless. All this means is that the resin on your new brake pads is curing and getting stronger as you use them. The break-in period for new brake pads will vary among different brands and types. Some will not smell even when new, while others may have a smell for a more extended period of time.

If this is the case, give it a few days. If the smell persists longer than a few days, you should take your car in for a brake repair service at your trusted mechanic.

Your Parking Brake Could Be Engaged

Oops moments happen all the time. If you notice a burning smell while driving, double check to make sure you fully disengaged your parking brake before taking off. It may sound dumb, but it happens to a lot of people. The friction caused by driving with the parking brake on, which is built to keep your car stationary, will cause it to overheat and can cause damage.

Other indications you’ll notice if you accidentally left your parking brake on include difficulty accelerating, squealing, and grinding. Typically, people will notice relatively soon when they have left the parking brake on, but if it isn’t noticed for a while, it can cause serious damage.

image of a hand gripping emergency/parking brake

What Should You Do If You Smell Your Brakes Burning?

Regularly letting your brakes overheat can cause brake fading. When your brake pads overheat, they become less responsive because a slick glaze develops on the surface. This can be a temporary problem, but if you consistently overheat your brakes it can become permanent. Because brake fade impacts how well your car is able to come to a complete stop, it will be necessary to get new brake pads if it becomes a more permanent problem for your car.

Whenever you notice a burning smell associated with your brakes, it’s a good idea to get your car’s brakes checked by a mechanic. It should be a simple auto repair, but it will ensure that your brakes have not been damaged due to overheating or overuse. Even if you simply left your parking brake on, there’s potential that some damage was caused that a mechanic can address.