What Is ABS and Will It Stop Me Before That 1,000-Foot Drop?

You don’t have to pump the brakes anymore, but it’s still fun to use the phrase.

The ABS sensor lights up orange in the car dashboard.
Depositphotos

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In the old days, stopping your car could be a crapshoot. Large, heavy cars and drum brakes meant that stopping quickly usually involved a skid or wearing your leg out pumping the pedal to get the boat-sized hunk of steel to stop. Things have obviously changed for the better with cars and safety, and brake tech has followed suit. 

One big advancement that came along with the wave of safety technology was anti-lock brakes or ABS. The system is meant to help the driver maintain control of the car and prevent skidding when the brakes need to be forcefully applied. But what’s going on when you stomp down on the brake pedal in the event of an emergency?

Thankfully, The Drive’s editors have been there and done that with anti-lock brakes––in a controlled environment, of course. We’re here to walk you through the basics and help you understand what ABS is, and why it’s vital to a safe driving experience.

Let’s get rolling.

ABS helps prevent lockups and skids.
Depositphotos

ABS helps prevent lockups and skids.

What Is ABS? 

ABS is an acronym for anti-lock braking system. As part of a vehicle’s stability system, the ABS monitors the driver’s braking pressure and wheel movement. If the system detects that one or more wheels are about to lock up due to hard braking, it will cause a short release of brake pressure on the affected wheels to allow rotation to continue and safely stop you in the shortest amount of time. 

How Does ABS Improve Safety?

When hard braking causes a lockup, the vehicle will continue traveling in whatever direction it was headed when the lockup and resulting skid began, no matter which way the driver turns the steering wheel. 

ABS helps prevent this problem by pulsing the brakes to allow just enough wheel rotation for the driver to retain control of the vehicle and hopefully steer it in a safe direction. The system releases braking pressure only momentarily, and the driver may feel a vibration or pulse in the steering wheel as it’s happening.

Which Cars Have ABS?

In late 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration mandated ABS, along with electronic stability control (ESC). Vehicles made in the U.S. since then have been required to carry the technology.

ABS does not improve stopping distance.
Depositphotos

ABS does not improve stopping distance.

Are There Any Downsides To ABS?

ABS helps save lives, that’s the bottom line, but it’s not perfect. Cost used to be an issue, as cars that came with ABS would sometimes cost more because of the added equipment. Now, with the technology being standard on everything, the main issue is braking distance. Because the system is pulsing the brakes on and off, the added wheelspin allows the car to travel further than it would with consistent brake pressure. 

That said, improvements to the technology, either through brake pad and rotor material, or beefier brake calipers, have continued since the NHTSA’s mandate. 

ABS and Braking Terms You Should Know

Get educated!

Electronic Stability Control

Electronic stability control, or ESC, helps by applying braking force to a vehicle’s wheels to prevent loss of control. The two main functions here are to prevent excessive oversteer, which is when the back end steps out, or understeer, which is when a vehicle continues plowing forward after the driver has turned the steering wheel in a non-straight direction.

TCS

TCS, also known as the traction control system, works to prevent a loss of traction and excessive wheel spin. The system works by cutting the throttle, applying braking force, or other measures to prevent loss of control. Many vehicles allow the driver to turn off traction control, or to reduce its effectiveness, which can improve lap times on a track or help you get unstuck from a slippery, snowy driveway.

Automatic Emergency Braking

Automatic emergency braking systems (AEB) function as part of a vehicle’s ADAS, or advanced driver assistance systems. AEB helps detect an upcoming obstacle, such as a stopped or slowed vehicle, and alerts the driver to the threat. If the driver’s braking inputs are not adequate to stop the vehicle, the system will step in and apply braking force.

If there's a problem with the ABS on your car, you may see a warning light.
Depositphotos

If there's a problem with the ABS on your car, you may see a warning light.

FAQs About ABS

You’ve got questions, The Drive has answers! 

Q: Can I Turn Off ABS?

A: There’s no simple––or road-legal––way to disable your ABS. Frankly, there’s no reason to, unless you plan on taking your car to the track. We won’t step out and promote your lawlessness, but if you were really determined to find out how to turn off your car’s safety systems, we’re sure you could find a video or two on YouTube to guide you through the process.

Q: What If My ABS System Breaks?

A: “Breaking” here means that there’s probably a sensor, relay, or other components that need replacement. If your wheel sensors need replacement, the cost can be $100 to $200 or more, depending on the vehicle. An ABS control module replacement can cost much more, at up to $750 or so, depending on the make and model of your vehicle.

Q: Do I Need To Pump the Brakes When Stopping With ABS?

A: No. Your ABS is designed to work with a firm, consistent brake pressure. Pumping the brakes could induce a skid or cause you to lose control of the vehicle.

Q: Will ABS Shorten the Life Of My Brake Pads?

A: It shouldn’t unless you find yourself engaging the system frequently. ABS isn’t a feature that is designed to engage on a regular basis, so if you’re constantly finding yourself slamming on the brakes, you may need to assess your driving habits.

Video

Learn more about anti-lock brakes with this animated video clip.

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