Why is the ABS Light On?

We assume you like cars that stop when you press the brake pedal, so don’t ignore the ABS light when you see it.

byChris Teague|
Maintenance & Repair photo

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When your car needs new brake pads or rotors, there are a few obvious signs that things are going sideways. There’s an obnoxious noise, and sometimes an annoying vibration in the steering wheel or brake pedal. But in some cases, there can be problems with your vehicle’s braking system that aren’t immediately obvious, that’s where the ABS light comes into play.

The anti-lock braking system is designed to help you steer out of harm’s way when you’re braking, but it’s also able to alert you to problems within the system that you wouldn’t know about otherwise. When there’s an issue, your car will display a warning light, and trust us, it’s best not to ignore it.

When the light comes on, get your car to a shop or get ready to do some at-home diagnostics. The Drive’s informational team likes stopping, too, so we have the inside scoop on what causes the ABS light to come on, how to fix it, and when to get professional help. Stick with us for the dirt on how to stop!

They're annoying, but don't ignore warning lights., Depositphotos

What Is The ABS Light?

The ABS light refers to a warning light for a vehicle’s anti-lock braking system. We know some of you are happy just sticking a piece of tape over those little glowing red lights in your dash, but this isn’t one you can ignore. 

What Causes The ABS Light To Come On?

When the ABS light comes on in your vehicle, one of a few things could be happening:

  1. The ABS controller could have stopped working.
  2. There might be a broken wire somewhere between the controller and the system’s sensors.
  3. A wheel speed sensor could be dirty or damaged in some way.
  4. There could be a blown fuse.
  5. Some vehicles show an ABS light when the brake fluid is low, but many vehicles have a separate light for that part of the system.

What Should I Do When I See The ABS LIght?

You should panic. Hard. Just kidding, but in all seriousness because of the variety of issues that could trigger the light is so large, it’s best to have the issue checked out by a mechanic. The big asterisk here is that you can run checks at home using an OBD-II scanner. If you’re mechanically inclined, you can also perform a visual inspection yourself before spending the money at a repair shop.

Brakes are an important part of safety and regular operation., Depositphotos

Warning Lights Stress Me Out. Can I Just Ignore It?

The short answer: No. The longer answer: Don’t be silly, it’s still no. Your vehicle’s anti-lock braking system is responsible for preventing the wheels from locking up under heavy braking. The system pulses the brakes quickly to allow just enough wheel rotation for the driver to maintain steering control. If the wheels lock up, the vehicle is going to keep traveling in the same direction it was heading before the skid started.

Explanation of ABS Terms 

What does all of this alphabet soup of terms and abbreviations mean? We’ve got you covered.


This refers to the anti-lock braking system in a vehicle. Anti-lock brakes are designed to quickly pulse the brakes to allow for a tiny bit of wheel rotation between each pulse. This lets the driver maintain some degree of steering control instead of having the vehicle enter an uncontrollable skid.

Warning Lights

Warning lights are those little orange lights in your vehicle’s gauge cluster. They are designed to alert you to issues with various vehicle systems, from the air pressure levels in your tires to the airbag systems. They’re annoying, stress-inducing, and can mean big-money repairs, but it’s best not to ignore them.


This term refers to an on-board diagnostics system that is present in vehicles built and sold in the United States after January 1st, 1996. The connector to scan the system must be located within three feet of the driver’s position, and cannot be obscured to the point that it requires tools to access. In the past, these things required a mechanic and an expensive computer to scan, but now there are several solutions that only require a smartphone and an app.

Traction Control

Your vehicle’s traction control system uses wheel speed sensors to detect when one or more wheels have lost traction. It then triggers a hydraulic modulator to slow or stop the wheel spin. You may have noticed the system at work if you’ve ever driven in snowy or icy conditions. One or more of your car’s drive wheels can spin in these conditions, but the traction control system will stop it, in most cases. This is why it’s best to turn traction control off to get your vehicle unstuck in snowy conditions

Brake Pads

Brake pads aren’t just an annoying part that your mechanic is gouging you to replace. They’re a vital part of your vehicle’s braking system. Brake pads are the part of the braking system that actually applies pressure to the rotor, which spins along with the wheels. This is what slows your vehicle when you push on the brake pedal.

Brake Rotors

Brake rotors, as the name suggests, rotate with the vehicle’s wheels. They are what the term “discs” in disc brakes refers to. As they spin, the vehicle’s brake calipers apply pressure to the pads, which causes them to clamp down on the spinning rotor. 


Calipers, or brake calipers, are the clamp-like part of your vehicle’s braking system that is driven by pressure in the brake lines. It “squeezes” the pads onto the rotor, which generates the friction needed to stop the vehicle.

Stability Control

Stability control, commonly referred to as electronic stability control in modern cars, is a safety system that detects a potential loss of steering control. When the system senses a problem, it automatically applies braking pressure to counteract the effects of a skid and to help steer the vehicle where the driver wanted it to go.

Wheel Speed Sensors

Wheel speed sensors function almost like a tachometer, tracking the rotational speed of each wheel. They’re used to help other vehicle systems prevent skidding, braking problems, and loss of control.

ABS lights can be caused by a number of factors., Depositphotos

FAQs About The ABS Light 

You’ve got questions, The Drive has answers!

Q. Does My Car Have ABS?

A: If your vehicle was made and sold in the U.S. in the last seven years or so, there’s a very good chance that it does. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA, as they’re affectionately known) started mandating ABS in new vehicles as of September 1st, 2013.

Q. I Don’t Pay For Brake Maintenance Until They Squeak, Why Should I Care About The ABS Light?

A: First, remind us not to call you for a ride. Second, you’re playing with fire by waiting until the absolute last minute to service your brakes. Beyond that, the ABS light can indicate a number of problems that aren’t even related to the pads and rotors, which is what’s causing that satisfying noise every time you press the brake pedal.

Q. Why Won’t My Shop Resurface My Brake Rotors Instead Of Replacing Them?

A: Depending on the shop, your vehicle, and the condition of your rotors themselves, there may not be enough “free material” in the rotor to allow for a resurfacing job. 

Q. Will ABS Make My Car Stop Faster?

A: In most cases, no. It’s designed to help you steer the car out of danger when you’re braking. In some situations, such as when driving on loose surfaces, it can actually lengthen the amount of time and distance that it takes to stop your vehicle. 

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