Please diagnose my brake problem

During normal braking, you are not taxing the system that hard so you don’t really know that all is well. What you think is only 30-40% of your braking capacity might really be closer to 80-90%. Under emergency conditions, you find out that the brakes really aren’t up to par.

I went through this on our 86 Tercel a while ago. It got totaled before I figured it out, but I recently did the brakes in my truck. I used the same pads that I have always relied on, and they just don’t work like they used to. These are the same pads I used on the Tercel so now I suspect the pads that I have been using all these years have suddenly dropped in quality. BTW the truck is Nissan with rear anti-lock brakes similar to your Dakota.

It could be the master cylinder or booster, both are expensive experiments. I’d go for the master cylinder first, but I think before that, I would suggest that you try some composite brake pads that use Aramide or carbon fibers. These have better grip than either semi metallic or ceramic pads.