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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