Reader Question: ABS Light on; Safe to Drive?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Mary asks: My 2001 Chevy’s “ABS” light has come and stays on; is it safe to drive my car?

My reply: Sure – provided you don’t tailgate! Allow me to elucidate… .

ABS stands for Anti-Lock Brakes; ABS is a system that uses wheel speed sensors and an electric ABS pump to automatically prevent the brakes from locking up, even when full braking force is applied by the driver. When the sensors detect an imminent lock-up situation, the ABS pump decreases hydraulic pressure  – and then reapplies it just enough to keep the brakes working at near-maximum “bite” but without them causing the wheels (and tires) to stop turning altogether.

The idea here is to prevent an uncontrolled skid – which happens when the wheels lock up and tires skid – because you lose the ability to steer the car. It continues to travel in the direction of the skid. Unless you back off the brakes just enough to regain steering control – but most people haven’t been trained do this, so the car just skids toward and usually into whatever it is skidding towards.

Hence ABS, which has been standard in almost all new cars since the late 1980s.

When the light comes on and stays on (it is supposed to briefly light at start up, then go out – to let you know the light is working and the ABS system is working, too) it means there’s a problem with the ABS system . . . but not necessarily the brakes.

It usually means you still have brakes – but not anti-lock. Which means it is probably safe to drive the car, so long as you keep in mind that the car may skid due to wheel lock-up if you brake hard. Be aware of this – and be sure to maintain adequate following distance and pay attention to your driving and the evolving driving situation.

Assuming the physical/mechanical braking system is operating normally you could drive the car indefinitely, without having the ABS fixed – if you can deal with not driving an ABS-equipped car. People did so from the time of the Model T to the ’80s, so it’s not a particularly dangerous thing to do. It does require more attentive driving – and (ideally) learning skills such as threshold braking and how to steer out of a skid. Neither are race car driver-level skills and used to be taught and even expected of average drivers.

Instead, we got ABS – one of the first idiot-proofing/dumbing down saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety systems, which set the precedent for the agglutination we suffer under today.

PS: If the brake pedal feels soft or different in any way, there is likely a problem with the brakes – and not just the ABS. In this case, it is not safe to drive the car. Have it towed to a shop.

. . .

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  1. 2001 chevy (what) car?
    some of the gm pass. cars from that era had too much rear brake bias but they used the abs to compensate. be aware that if your car is one of those, it may have a tendency to lock up the rears under hard braking. not unsafe if you are prepared for it…
    go find a deserted road and test it out.

  2. There are some ABS systems ( late 80’s early 90’s Cadillacs, and some early 90’s GM pickups that I know of) where losing the ABS can lose you some or all of the brakes. On the caddies- it is a very expensive and no longer available poor design which acts like a bad master cylinder when it goes- the pedal sinks to the floor when holding, and seems to have less effectiveness overall. The GM pickups first cam as rear wheel antilocks, and you lose the rear brakes when it goes- making icy roads and trailering interesting.

  3. The ABS light is akin to the tire pressure monitoring light except it is easier to turn off. Both systems are superfluous. Both systems are annoying. Both unnecessarily add to the complexity to today’s cars and both confer no discernible benefits to drivers. It is doubtful that either have had any effect on the highway death rate.

  4. My ABS goes offline for almost as long as I have owned by vehicle.
    Since I learned to drive on vehicles that never had ABS, I ignore it.

  5. The ABS light on a 1990-2000 era GM vehicle is pretty much normal, IIRC. 😃

    I remember back in those days one of the trucks at work had a failure where the ABS sensor was always reporting a locked up wheel. So that made braking interesting until it was fixed. But that was a pretty rare thing, most of the time the sensors stop reporting anything either due to an open circuit or failed hall-effect sensor.

    • I have been told that you can just unplug the chassis wire from the ABS module up by the master cylinder and the light will go off.

      Of course, I wouldn’t know anything about that in practice.

  6. Mary might want to look at her brakes and see if there is a dangling cord near the wheel hub on the backside. It’s possible that a squirrel, or some such furry beast that scurries along the ground, may have taken a liking to the taste of the sensor cord. If so, it’s usually an easy fix and not very expensive to replace the chewed wire unit. It usually has on bolt or screw holding it in place and a connector that leads back to the computer.

    Something chewed through the wire on my F150 and it cost about $20 and took about fifteen minutes to replace.


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