How Do Anti-Lock Brake Systems Really Work?

If the car, truck or SUV you drive was manufactured in the last couple of decades, there is a good chance the vehicle is equipped with anti-lock brakes. When they first arrived on the scene, anti-lock brakes were a real game changer, and a great leap forward in terms of driving safety.

Vehicles equipped with anti-lock brakes were designed to operate much more safely on snowy and icy roads, keeping drivers more secure behind the wheel and reducing some of the anxiety of winter driver. But just how do these anti-lock braking systems work, and what should you do if they are not working the way they should?

Pumping the Brakes So You Don’t Have To

If you learned to drive in an earlier era, before anti-lock brakes were standard, your instructor (or your dad) may have taught you how to pump the brakes when the road was snow covered or icy. You probably learned how to step on the brake pedal repeatedly, and how doing so could stop you from skidding out of control.

Anti-lock brakes work on the same basic concept, but with a big technological assist. Instead of you stepping repeatedly on the brake pedal, the anti-lock braking system does it for you. When you apply the brakes in a vehicle equipped with anti-lock brakes, you simply apply steady pressure, and a series of sensors essentially pumps the brakes for you.

Sensors at Each Wheel

This automatic pumping of the brakes is at the heart of the anti-lock braking revolution. By taking the hard work and guesswork out of braking, anti-lock braking systems make driving in bad weather, including ice and snow, a lot safer. You still need to keep your wits about you, and you still need to slow down and drive sensibly when the weather turns bad. At the same time, the anti-lock brakes in your car can provide that extra layer of safety when you need to go out in the storm.

The anti-lock braking system in your car, truck or SUV relies on a series of sensors, including sensors at each wheel. If the system determines that a wheel is about to slip, the anti-lock brakes kick in, helping you avoid an dangerous skid.

The importance of those sensors at the wheel cannot be overstated, but sometimes something goes wrong. If your vehicle detects an issue with one or more of the sensors, you will see the ABS light on the dash illuminate. You should not ignore this warning light, since it means that something has gone wrong with the sensors that make your anti-lock brakes work. If you want to drive safely, you need a definitive diagnosis and the right repairs.