Why the Heck Aren't Anti-Lock Braking Systems Required Technology?

While the government has passed regulations mandating backup cameras, simpler tech still doesn't have to come standard.

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Car enthusiasts don't tend to like regulations. They want emissions requirements that allow straight-piped manual diesel wagons. They prefer crash tests that rank somewhere near "3rd-grade spelling test" in terms of difficulty. And when you say side-impact, they're not thinking about saved lives but rising beltlines. Everything they hate about cars, from the widening A-pillars to the ballooning curb weights, is a result of an NHTSA that's too quick to mandate. The biggest overreach, they'll say, is the soon-to-take-effect requirement that all new cars be equipped with backup cameras. The government, to them, requires things that we simply don't need.

What may come as a surprise, then, is what the government doesn't require. I wanted to make a list, for my own reference, of compulsory safety equipment and when it became standard. Starting alphabetically, I searched for when the NHTSA banned cars without anti-lock braking systems (ABS) from sale in the U.S. Well, they didn't. Ever.

It turns out, unlike stability control and dual airbags, ABS hasn't been mandated. For the uninitiated, antilock braking systems use wheel-speed sensors to prevent the wheels from locking up under heavy braking. The computers modulate brake pressure to make sure that all wheels maintain traction, allowing you to brake and steer at the same time. Because of that, it's a very useful technology for avoiding collisions.

What's interesting about that is that there was conflicting evidence on whether or not backup cameras even qualified as safety equipment. Until the regulation, they were almost entirely thought of as convenience features to help with parking. While backup cameras do help drivers avoid running over pedestrians, these accidents are much less common than the rear-end and head-on collisions that ABS can help drivers avoid.

Since stability control uses the same sensors and is federally required, I'm not aware of any vehicle sold in recent years that doesn't include ABS as standard equipment. Traction control also isn't required — since it helps people accelerate, which eliminates the safety argument — but is similarly ubiquitous.