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Antilock Braking Systems (ABS)

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ABS is a computerized system that keeps your wheels from locking up during hard brake applications.

ABS is an addition to your normal brakes. It does not decrease or increase your normal braking capability. ABS only activates when wheels are about to lock up.

ABS does not necessarily shorten your stopping distance, but it does help you keep the vehicle under control during hard braking.

How Antilock Braking Systems Work

Sensors detect potential wheel lock up. An electronic control unit (ECU) will then decrease brake pressure to avoid wheel lockup.

Brake pressure is adjusted to provide the maximum braking without danger of lockup.

ABS works far faster than the driver can respond to potential wheel lockup. At all other times the brake system will operate normally.

Vehicles Required to Have Antilock Braking Systems

The Department of Transportation requires that ABS be on:

  • Truck tractors with air brakes built on or after March 1, 1997.
  • Other air brake vehicles, (trucks, buses, trailers, and converter dollies) built on or after March 1, 1998.
  • Hydraulically braked trucks and buses with a gross vehicle weight rating of 10,000 lbs or more built on or after March 1, 1999.

Many commercial vehicles built before these dates have been voluntarily equipped with ABS.

How to Know If Your Vehicle Is Equipped with ABS

Tractors, trucks, and buses will have yellow ABS malfunction lamps on the instrument panel.

Trailers will have yellow ABS malfunction lamps on the left side, either on the front or rear corner.

Dollies manufactured on or after March 1, 1998, are required to have a lamp on the left side.

As a system check on newer vehicles, the malfunction lamp comes on at start-up for a bulb check, and then goes out quickly. On older systems, the lamp could stay on until you are driving over five mph.

If the lamp stays on after the bulb check, or goes on once you are under way, you may have lost ABS control.

In the case of towed units manufactured before it was required by the Department of Transportation, it may be difficult to tell if the unit is equipped with ABS. Look under the vehicle for the ECU and wheel speed sensor wires coming from the back of the brakes.

How ABS Helps You

When you brake hard on slippery surfaces in a vehicle without ABS, your wheels may lock up. When your steering wheels lock up, you lose steering control. When your other wheels lock up, you may skid, jackknife, or even spin the vehicle.

ABS helps you avoid wheel lock up and maintain control. You may or may not be able to stop faster with ABS, but you should be able to steer around an obstacle while braking, and avoid skids caused by over braking.

ABS on the Tractor Only or Only on the Trailer

Having ABS on only the tractor, only the trailer, or even on only one axle, still gives you more control over the vehicle during braking. Brake normally.

When only the tractor has ABS, you should be able to maintain steering control, and there is less chance of jackknifing. But keep your eye on the trailer and let up on the brakes (if you can safely do so) if it begins to swing out.

When only the trailer has ABS, the trailer is less likely to swing out, but if you lose steering control or start a tractor jackknife, let up on the brakes (if you can safely do so) until you regain control.

Braking with ABS

When you drive a vehicle with ABS, you should brake as you always have. In other words:

  • Use only the braking force necessary to stop safely and stay in control.
  • Brake the same way, regardless of whether you have ABS on the bus, tractor, the trailer, or both.
  • As you slow down, monitor your tractor and trailer and back off the brakes (if it is safe to do so) to stay in control.

There is only one exception to this procedure. If you drive a straight truck or combination with working ABS on all axles, in an emergency stop, you can fully apply the brakes.

Braking If ABS Is Not Working

Without ABS you still have normal brake functions. Drive and brake as you always have.

Vehicles with ABS have yellow malfunction lamps to tell you if something isn’t working.

As a system check on newer vehicles, the malfunction lamp comes on at start-up for a bulb check and then goes out quickly. On older systems, the lamp could stay on until you are driving over five mph.

If the lamp stays on after the bulb check, or goes on once you are under way, you may have lost ABS control on one or more wheels.

Remember, if your ABS malfunctions, you still have regular brakes. Drive normally, but get the system serviced soon.

Safety Reminders

  • ABS won’t allow you to drive faster, follow more closely, or drive less carefully.
  • ABS won’t prevent power or turning skids–ABS should prevent brake-induced skids or jackknifes, but not those caused by spinning the drive wheels or going too fast in a turn.
  • ABS won’t necessarily shorten stopping distance. ABS will help maintain vehicle control, but not always shorten stopping distance.
  • ABS won’t increase or decrease ultimate stopping power–ABS is an “add-on” to your normal brakes, not a replacement for them.
  • ABS won’t change the way you normally brake. Under normal brake conditions, your vehicle will stop as it always stopped. ABS only comes into play when a wheel would normally have locked up because of over braking.
  • ABS won’t compensate for bad brakes or poor brake maintenance.
  • Remember: The best vehicle safety feature is still a safe driver.
  • Remember: Drive so you never need to use your ABS.
  • Remember: If you need it, ABS could help to prevent a serious crash.

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