Explained: What is ABS in a Car?

As far as technical jargon goes, the automotive (that means ‘car’) industry is one of the worst offenders for speaking in riddles and bombarding the average car owner with terminology that they wouldn’t understand. That’s where Scrap Car Comparison comes in, on hand to let you know what the shorthand, acronyms and fancy-sounding words actually mean.

With ABS – or Anti-lock Braking Systems – being a legal requirement on cars in the UK since 2004, it’s quite important that you know what it is, what it does and how to identify when it’s not working as it should.

What Does ABS Do?

In a nutshell, ABS acts when you hit the brakes to ensure the wheels keep turning whilst you slow down in a controlled manner, as opposed to having them lock up, produce clouds of smoke and leave you with zero control over the direction you’re travelling in. If your wheels lock and stop spinning, you can’t voluntarily change direction, meaning that evading an obstacle is no longer an option – you can only hope to stop before you reach it, or spin out of its way.

The way the system works can be explained in a fairly short passage but the real computing that goes into its implementation is staggering, especially when you consider that this tech has been around since Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory hit cinemas – yes, the Gene Wilder one!

Sensors in each of the vehicle’s wheels measure the speed at which the wheel is spinning, along with how quickly the car is accelerating or decelerating. ABS recognises when the wheels are about to lock up once a driver hits the brakes and counteracts this by adjusting the braking pressure to keep the level optimal. This process is undertaken by the car multiple times per second.

How to Check If Your Car Has ABS

There are several ways to check if your car has anti-lock braking. We’re going to cover them all, even though a couple of them are almost guaranteed to answer the question for you no matter your situation.

As we mentioned above, if your car was made in the UK from 2004 onwards, it is required by law to have ABS fitted as standard. However, if you have your doubts about a particular car – perhaps you’ve just bought it and some inconsistencies in the car’s history are starting to show – then the following methods can be used to check if it has ABS installed.

  • Read the manual – Assuming you have the manufacturers manual that came with the car when it was initially purchased, you’ll have a definitive answer in black and white regarding your ABS query. If the car has anti-lock braking systems, the manual will say so.
  • Check the lights  – Not the headlights. No, what you want to do here is turn the key just one or two clicks (not far enough to start the engine) and, as you do so, take a look at the little symbols that light up across your dashboard behind the steering wheel. You should see one that clearly says ‘ABS’ in capital letters, often with a circle and brackets around it.
  • Find the sensor – You’ll need to remove a wheel and look under the car for this method, so consider it the last resort. On the axles, look for a small sensor with a fairly thick wire attached to it. It may be hard to identify, but if you can find it, your car has ABS.

Is My Car Safe To Drive With the ABS Light On?

Despite ABS being mandatory on modern cars, it is technically not illegal to drive with the dashboard warning light illuminated. Whether it’s safe to do so, is another matter.

If the ABS light is lighting up your dashboard, it means that the system may not be working as intended. While your brakes will still work, should you need to make an emergency stop, the anti-lock braking system might fail to keep your wheels turning, leaving you skidding towards danger at speed.

Because of the importance of this safety feature, it’s absolutely worth getting the system looked at by a professional as soon as possible, even if it means jumping in ahead of its regular service. A DIY job is not advisable here.

5 Reasons Why Your ABS Light Might Have Come On

Once the ABS light has come on, you’ll want to figure out why. Again, it’s best left to a professional, but if you want to try to diagnose the issue yourself, here’s a few common issues with anti-lock braking systems.

  1. A blown fuse – The ABS has a fuse of its own, which could have blown. This would result in the light illuminating straight away.
  2. Broken speed sensor – The speed sensor tells the car how fast each wheel is moving, so that it can adjust them as necessary. This process can’t happen if the sensor is broken.
  3. Low brake fluid – Leaking brake fluid can cause the anti-lock braking system to fail and light up the dashboard. Listen out for a grinding sound when braking.
  4. Faulty ABS module – Typically a wiring issue, corrosion can cause the electrical signals between the module and the sensors to be cut out.
  5. Hydraulic pump – The device that pumps brake fluid around the system can wear out, but if the pump isn’t working properly, the ABS won’t be able to operate as it should either.

How To Fix the ABS In Your Car

As we already mentioned a couple of times, the anti-lock braking system is a device that could potentially save your life one day. It’s not something to poke around in and try to fix by trial-and-error. For that reason, the best course of action would be to take the car to a professionally trained mechanic to be assessed and have the specific problem diagnosed and then fixed.

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