7 Tips for Driving Safely with ABS

A few things to know about your car's ABS

A car drives away from skid marks, ABS having allowed it to maintain control.
Gergely Bakos / EyeEmOwner / Getty

Anti-lock brakes (ABS) 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 work properly, and you have to approach rear-wheel systems differently than four-wheel systems.

First, determine whether your car or truck 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.

Here are the most important things to remember to maintain safe ABS driving habits:

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Keep Your Foot on the Brake Pedal, Don't Pump the Brakes

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)

Safely driving a vehicle that's equipped with ABS and fully taking advantage of an ABS system can be counter-intuitive for people who learned to drive in older vehicles. Instead of pumping the brakes to prevent them from locking up, you need to keep steady pressure on the pedal when you find yourself in a panic stop situation.

Pumping the brake pedal during a panic stop 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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When Your ABS Engages, You Can Still 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)

As you maintain steady pressure on your brake pedal, remember that you can still steer during a panic stop. In fact, that's one of the main strengths of ABS. Since the wheels don't lock, you can effectively maintain control of the vehicle instead of veering dangerously to one side or the other.

While an ABS may not be able to stop you in time to avoid a collision in every situation, the ability to maintain control, and steer through a panic stop, can allow you to safely avoid other vehicles, pedestrians, or objects in your path.

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Don't Assume You Have Four 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)

Consult your owner's manual, or contact the manufacturer of your vehicle, to verify which type of ABS system you have. Most modern ABS systems cover all four wheels, but some only apply to the rear wheels. These systems are most commonly found on older trucks and vans.

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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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)

Knowing that you have ABS and actually taking advantage of this life-saving technology are two very different things. In fact, an unsuspecting driver may misinterpret the signs that ABS has kicked in and panic, resulting in an even more dangerous situation.

When an anti-lock brake system engages, you will typically feel a peculiar buzzing, pulsating, or vibrating sensation on the brake pedal. 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 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)

Even more important than understanding when your ABS might kick in, and how the system works, is knowing when you won't be able to count on it. While ABS is tremendously useful, it works better in some conditions than others.

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. Conversely, 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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ABS Can't Do Everything Itself: Do You Have Traction or Stability Control?

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)

ABS can help you stop faster in most situations, but it won't make up for unsafe driving practices. Studies have shown that people are naturally inclined to drive more dangerously when they think systems like ABS are covering for them, so it's especially important to maintain safe and defensive driving habits even when you have ABS in your car.

In addition to safe driving habits, a number of other systems can help in situations where ABS won't. Systems like traction control and stability control, for example, may help if you get into a skid or are in danger of losing control in a corner, and 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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Pay Attention to 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)

Do you know what to do when your ABS light comes on? A surprisingly large percentage of drivers simply ignore warning lights in their vehicles, because a warning light doesn't always translate to an immediate, catastrophic failure of the associated system.

That's more or less true of the ABS light, but it's still extremely important to pay attention to it.

When your ABS light comes on, it usually indicates that there is an issue with one of the components in the ABS system. It could be a wheel speed sensor, or any number of other issues, and there’s no way to really diagnose the problem without pulling the codes and digging in.

The important thing to remember is that a vehicle with an illuminated ABS light is usually 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. If you get into a panic stop situation, and you feel the brakes lock up, be ready to pump the brakes like you would on an older car with standard brakes.

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