How to use ABS brakes correctly

When driving in slippery conditions, ABS brakes are a massive safety benefit. But you have to know how to use them

Anti-lock braking systems (ABS) are a standard feature on most cars, courtesy of legislation that has made it compulsory to fit them to mass-produced cars sold in the UK. The ABS system uses electronics to optimise the effectiveness of a car’s braking system, and it’s a major boost in vehicle safety when compared to cars that aren’t equipped with ABS that rely on the driver to make the most of the braking power available.

Most people are aware that their car is fitted with ABS brakes, but far fewer know what it does and how it works. Sensors fitted to a car’s wheels determine if one is on the verge of locking up under braking. If a wheel does lock, then hydraulic valves release to reduce braking pressure ever so slightly to prevent this happening. In many ways the electronics are performing cadence braking – where the driver pumps the brake pedal to prevent wheel lock. This allows the driver to maintain steering control, which is lost when the wheels are locked.

Drivers will be able to tell when the ABS system on their car is activated because when they apply the brakes, the brake pedal will pulse rapidly under their foot. Many modern cars have integrated safety systems that will also see the seatbelts tension and even the hazard warning lights activate when the car comes under extreme braking.

However, ABS isn’t an impenetrable safety net. It’s not an excuse to drive into hazards more quickly, and doesn’t mean you can drive closer to the vehicle in front – yes it does help to reduce braking distances, but you should maintain distance so you don’t need to put the ABS to use. Plus, on slippery surfaces, bear in mind that ABS doesn’t work as well – and on sheet ice, nothing will stop you except crashing into the kerbside or another object. Safe speed and observation are the keys to safe driving.

Braking without ABS In Emergency

All modern mass-production cars built since 2004 are fitted with ABS by law, but some sports cars, such as Caterhams, and older models are unlikely to be equipped with the system.

Drivers can almost create their own ABS in a car that doesn’t have it fitted by using the cadence method mentioned above. If you find yourself travelling too quickly in wet or slippery conditions and try to stop suddenly, the wheels are likely to lock up and the car could start to skid.

In order to stop without skidding, rhythmically pump your foot up and down on the brake pedal. This will essentially replicate what an ABS system does, albeit nowhere near as effectively or quickly. Remember to look where you want the car to go and steer there, and try not to ‘panic freeze’, as you’ll simply lock the brakes and have an accident.  

ABS: avoiding a collision

ABS is a fantastic aid to driver safety, but only if you know what it does and how to use it in emergencies – which many people don’t. The key benefit of the system is that it allows maximum braking force to be applied, yet the driver can still steer the car to avoid a collision. All you need to do to allow the ABS to work is to push the brake pedal flat to the floor, and the electronics will do the rest. Just remember that the steering will still work.

However, many people in that situation will often ‘panic freeze’, and continue to look in front of them and not use the steering to avoid a collision. To stop this from happening, shout ‘brake and steer’. Saying this out loud should help you focus your thought process, giving you time to act appropriately to avoid hitting anything.

In winter, ABS isn’t quite as effective, and you may need to resort to the cadence braking method referred to above to make the most of any braking grip you may have.

What are your top tips for driving in winter weather? let us know in the comments section below…

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