All cars are equipped with what’s called an anti-lock braking system (ABS). A locked braking system occurs when the car is going too fast to hold traction under braking. In other words, if while braking the tires are sliding, that means they no longer have traction, and that’s when you go into a ditch.
Somewhere along the way you have the fleeting thought that you should have braked earlier and less hard. This scenario is not really probable anymore, at least not as much as it used to be, because of your car’s ABS. Without this trusty system, your car would surely have plowed into a tree, ditch, or school bus at some point. It prevents the locking up of the brakes, hence “anti-lock”.
ABS is a hydraulic system that uses a computer to detect sudden rotation speed changes via sensors in each wheel. In the event of such sudden rotation speed change (like sudden brake application), the ABS computer will tell the brakes to take away hydraulic pressure from the wheel and once the sensors detect a faster rotation again, will re-apply the pressure. Essentially the ABS will pulse the brakes in the event of sudden wheel speed change. Before ABS, in order to avoid locking the tires under braking, you had to build the pressure yourself and pump the brakes.
ABS can fail at any time, so like other driver aids such as traction control, it’s best not to rely heavily on them. They are there for you in case something goes wrong, or if through no fault of your own traffic ahead suddenly comes to a complete stop and you are in an emergency. You’ll know your ABS isn’t working properly if under heavy braking your tires lock up. Remember it’s best not to rely on it, so practice safe controlled braking without activating the ABS in an open space like an empty parking lot.
In wet conditions, it’s paramount to be aware of how effective your brakes will be. Braking is a highly sensitive process, and on wet tarmac, your braking distance is much greater than in normal dry conditions, so even though you have ABS, make sure there is enough distance to the car up ahead.
Broncos from 1980-96 were known to have ABS pumps that broke on occasion. The 1990s-early 2000s Ford Rangers were also known for having ABS that only worked sometimes. Like Mustang differentials it was almost too easy to overload and cause failure. The Ranger’s ABS would promptly deactivate under light braking.
ABS has no doubt improved safety in vehicles, and without it, there would be many more tragic accidents on the road. However, as we’ve said, it’s not a good idea to rely heavily on it to save your life. Like traction control, it can fail and when it does, as long as you’re prepared to handle the car in surprising conditions you’ll be just fine.
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