ABS Safe Driving Tips

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ABS Driving Tips

skid car
Skid cars are designed to simulate conditions where a vehicle loses control. Image courtesy of Dean Souglas, via Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)

Anti-lock brakes can help you stop shorter and avoid accidents, but it's vital to know how to make use of this basic car safety feature. There are a few circumstances where your ABS won't function properly, and you also have to approach rear-wheel systems differently than four-wheel systems.

The first thing to do is to determine whether your car or truck even has ABS. This is typically very simple, since ABS-equipped cars and trucks have a dedicated ABS light on the dash. When you first turn on the key or start the vehicle, look for an amber- or yellow-colored ABS light. If you can't find the light, but you still believe your car is equipped with ABS, then you can either consult the owner's manual or contact your local dealership.

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Some Vehicles Are Only Equipped with Rear-Wheel ABS

rear wheel abs
Some light trucks and older cars are only equipped with ABS on the rear wheels. Image courtesy of StacyZ, via Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)

Find out whether you have four-wheel or rear-wheel ABS

If you drive a vehicle that only has rear-wheel ABS, your front wheels may still lock up during a panic stop situation. You'll still stop shorter due to the rear ABS, but you may lose control of the vehicle if the front wheels lock up. If you find yourself unable to steer during a panic stop, and you have rear-wheel ABS, you can typically regain the ability to steer by letting up on the brake pedal long enough for the front wheels to unlock.

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Pumping the Pedal is Counterproductive

brake pedal
When it comes to pumping the pedal, forget what you (thought) you knew. Image courtesy of the tire zoo, via Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)

Don't take your foot off of the brake pedal

If your car has four-wheel ABS, then you should always keep firm pressure on the brake pedal during a panic stop. Pumping the brake pedal in that situation may feel natural, but it will actually disengage the ABS so that it stops working. Since the anti-lock brake system in your car is capable of pulsing the brakes much faster than you can pump, just let it do its job.

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Steer to Avoid Obstacles

steering wheel
The whole point of ABS is to allow you to maintain control of your vehicle, so don't forget to steer. Image courtesy of Mark Hillary, via Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)

Don't forget to steer

While you have your foot placed firmly on the brake pedal, don't forget that you can still steer during a panic stop. The ABS may not be able to stop you in time to avoid a collision, so do your best to steer around any vehicles or other objects that you find in your path.

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Know What to Expect when the ABS Kicks In

empty parking lot
A completely empty parking lot is a good place to get a feel for the stopping capabilities of your ABS, but it's still up to you to exercise common sense. Image courtesy of Radcliffe Dacanay, via Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)

Familiarize yourself with the ABS in your car

When an anti-lock brake system engages, you will feel a peculiar buzzing or vibrating sensation in your foot. That just means the system has activated, but it can be jarring the first time. If you want to see what it feels like, you can try some panic stops in an empty parking lot or another area where you are absolutely certain that there are no pedestrians or other cars around.

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Anti-Lock Brake Systems Aren't a Panacea

flipped car
Losing control of a vehicle is still very possible even with ABS, which is why it's vital to practice safe driving regardless of the technology at your disposal. Image courtesy of Craig Simpson, via Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)

Safe, defensive driving is still necessary

ABS can help you stop faster in most situations, but it won't make up for unsafe driving practices. Other systems, like traction control and stability control, may help if you get into a skid or are in danger of losing control in a corner, but your ABS won't help you there. Regardless of the safety features in a car, it's always a good idea to practice safe driving.

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Anti-Lock Brakes Don't Work Well in Some Conditions

gravel skid
Loose gravel, sand, and snow all make it tough for the wheels to grip, which can prevent an anti-lock brake system from functioning properly. Image courtesy of Grant C., via Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)

Know when your ABS isn't going to work

Anti-lock bake systems are at their best on hard surfaces, which includes roads that are slick due to rain, ice, or hard-packed snow. However, ABS doesn't work as well on loose surfaces like gravel and sand. If you get into a panic stop situation in loose snow, gravel, or sand, don't expect your ABS to stop you in time, and do your best to steer around any objects in your path.

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That Pesky Abs Light

ABS light
The ABS light indicates some type of fault in the system, but you can't tell what until you pull the codes. Image courtesy of _sarchi, via Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)

Know what to do when the ABS light comes on

If your ABS light comes on, it usually indicates that there is an issue with one of the components. It could be a wheel speed sensor or any number of other issues, so there’s no way to really diagnose the problem without pulling the codes and digging in. The vehicle will typically be safe to drive until you can get it into a shop for repairs, but you shouldn’t count on the ABS kicking in if you get into a panic stop situation. So if your ABS light comes on, make sure the brake fluid is full and that the vehicle still stops normally, and then drive it carefully until you can get it inspected.