How Should You Use Anti-Lock Brakes in an Emergency?

Braking it down.

Anti-lock braking systems (often simply referred to as ABS) are an important safety feature in most modern cars. But how should you use anti-lock brakes in an emergency? Read on for the details.

Research has found that while ABS can potentially reduce the number of accidents on the road, one of the key reasons they’re not better at their jobs is that drivers don’t always know how they work.

Understanding how to use your anti-lock brakes if you ever have to stop suddenly is vital to keeping safe on the roads. 

We’ll show you how.

First up:

What are anti-lock brakes?

Anti-lock brakes stop your car from skidding if you need to brake in an emergency. They’re called anti-lock brakes because they prevent your wheels from locking. This means you should still have control over your vehicle even if you have to stop your car abruptly. 

Most modern cars are fitted with ABS. They don’t kick in when you brake gently in normal braking conditions—only if you need to stop suddenly. They’re most effective on dry, solid road surfaces. 

Anti-lock braking systems are made up of four main components:

  • Speed sensors. These sensors are on your wheels and monitor their rotation speed.
  • Valves. If you brake hard, these valves will release pressure from the brakes.
  • Pump. The pump works with the valves to restore pressure once it’s been released. The goal is to keep just the right amount of pressure for you to control the car and prevent skidding. 
  • Electronic control unit (ECU). This computerised device controls the speed sensors and the release and application of pressure in the wheels. 

What are the effects of not having ABS?

If you don’t have anti-lock brakes, your car could skid if you have to stop in an emergency. That’s because applying hard pressure to brakes when you’re travelling at speed, as you would if you have to stop suddenly, can cause the wheels to lock. This makes your car lose its grip (traction) on the road, meaning it will continue moving no matter what direction you attempt to steer it in.

That’s why anti-lock brakes have become standard features in cars these days. They stop your wheels from locking this way, giving you more control over your vehicle if you ever need to stop quickly. 

Does ABS shorten the stopping distance of a car?

While anti-lock brakes might decrease a car’s stopping distance on solid road surfaces, this is by no means a guarantee. On some surfaces, like gravel and snow, they’re more likely to increase your stopping distance.

The biggest advantage of ABS is that you stay in control of your vehicle if you need to stop suddenly. 

What is the best way to utilise anti-lock brakes?

While we know that anti-lock brakes make cars safer, not everyone knows how to apply them if they need to. It’s a good idea to practise using your anti-lock brakes before you’re in an emergency.

Follow these steps:

  • Find a safe, off-road spot to practise 
  • Drive at a speed of about 30 km/h
  • Imagine an obstacle in your way
  • Brake hard
  • Keep control of the car and steer around the imaginary obstacle

When you try it for the first time, it’s normal to be nervous. You may not be used to the sound the brakes make or the shudders from the pedals. Know that this is all normal. At your own pace, keep trying. If you practise ahead of time, you’ll know what to do in an emergency.

How should you use anti-lock brakes in an emergency situation?

Just as you practised, the goal is to brake hard while maintaining your ability to steer your vehicle. 

We’ll take you through the steps.

Recognizing an emergency braking situation

The first thing to know about anti-lock brakes is when to use them. They’re designed to be used for an emergency stop, either to avoid a collision with another vehicle or because another kind of obstruction is in your path. 

Perhaps goods have fallen off a truck on the motorway or a pedestrian has run in front of your vehicle. The goal is to stay as in control as possible to avoid danger.

Applying anti-lock brakes in an emergency situation

1. Use firm and steady pressure

Apply continuous, solid pressure to the brake pedal. Keep pressing down until your vehicle comes to a stop.

2. Avoid pumping the brakes

While it may be tempting, avoid pressing up and down on the brakes as this will turn the ABS on and off, getting in the way of it working effectively.

3. Keep steering while using anti-lock brakes

The goal of anti-lock brakes is to allow you to keep steering to avoid obstructions. Using them effectively means continuing to move the car in the direction you need it to go until you come to a stop.

What should you do if your anti-lock brakes warning light stays on?

If your ABS light is on, it signals that something is wrong with the system. It’s important to get your brakes checked immediately, as your car may not be safe to drive in its current state. 

There’s a possibility that there’s an issue with the traction control system (the system that keeps your wheels running smoothly on the road), that your brake fluid is low, or that the speed sensors aren’t working as they should. 

The light could also be on because the ABS has been turned off. Check your car’s manual to see where the switch is. Solving the problem may be as simple as switching it back on again. 

Common misconceptions about anti-lock brakes

You may have heard these misconceptions about anti-lock brakes. We’re here to clear things up:

  • Myth: Anti-lock brakes decrease stopping distances.

Fact: As we’ve discussed, decreasing stopping distance is not one of the primary aims of anti-lock brakes. Instead, their goal is to help you retain control over your car in an emergency braking situation.

  • Myth: You shouldn’t feel any sensations while using anti-lock brakes.

Fact: When your anti-lock brakes kick into gear, you will likely feel them engage and then feel a rapid pulsing or vibrating sensation. That means the brakes are working as they should. You might hear a buzzing sound that accompanies this sensation. It’s important to keep your foot on the brake when you hear these noises and feel these sensations. 

  • Myth: You don’t get anti-lock brakes and non-anti-lock brakes in the same vehicle.

Fact: Anti-lock brakes work with your normal braking system by pumping them very rapidly to prevent your wheels from locking. So you don’t have one kind of braking system or another. In modern cars, chances are, you have both.

Tips for maintaining your anti-lock braking system

1. Inspect your braking systems regularly

Take your car for regular maintenance check-ups. Your mechanic will see that the brake fluid is topped up, the speed sensors are working as they should, and all the systems connected to your ABS brakes are working correctly. 

2. Recognize warning signs

The most obvious sign that your ABS isn’t working as it should be is the ABS warning light. If this comes on, get your brakes checked. If you feel like your brake pedal is not responding to your touch and that it takes more effort to brake, don’t wait to have your braking system looked at.

3. Drive as safely as possible

Always give yourself a safe stopping distance, avoid speeding, and, where possible, try not to drive in hazardous conditions. Of course, there will be dangerous situations that are impossible to avoid when your ABS will come to your rescue. Hopefully, they will be few and far between!

In summary

Anti-lock brakes can help prevent accidents, but only if used as they were designed. By stopping your wheels from locking, they make it possible to steer away from hazards in your path.

To use your anti-lock brakes in an emergency:

  1. Apply firm, steady pressure to the brake 
  2. Don’t pump the brakes—they’re doing a rapid pumping action all on their own
  3. Keep steering to avoid the hazards in your path

It’s important that you maintain your anti-lock brake system through regular inspections and pay attention to warning signs that come up. 

This system is designed to keep you and other road users out of harm’s way. Learning to use it effectively is an important part of safe driving.

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