Proper Braking Technique: ABS vs. Non-ABS

Tire with a red brake

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Until the 1970s, all automotive braking systems in consumer automobiles were standard friction brakes that worked by a foot pedal that applied pressure to brakes pads that in turn squeezed a metal disc or a metal drum to bring the wheels to a stop. If you have driven one of these vehicles, you know that these brakes are susceptible to locking up on wet or snowy roads and causing the automobile to skid into an uncontrollable slide.

It was once a standard part of driver's education to teach young drivers how to pump the breaks in order to maintain control of the front wheels and prevent an uncontrolled slide. Until recently, this was a technique taught to most drivers. 

Antilock Braking Systems

Beginning in the 1970s with the Chrysler Imperial, automobile manufacturers began to offer a new braking system, in which the brakes automatically gripped and released in rapid succession in order to maintain steering control of the front wheels. The idea here is that under heavy braking, the wheels continue to turn, which allows for the driver to maintain control of the vehicle rather than surrendering to wheels that freeze up and go into skids.

By the 1980s, ABS systems were becoming common, especially on luxury models, and by the 2000s they had become standard equipment on most cars. Since 2012, all passenger cars are equipped with ABS. But there are still a great many non-ABS vehicles on the road, and if you own one it is important to know how proper braking techniques vary between ABS and non-ABS vehicles. 

Braking With Traditional (Non-ABS) Brakes

Traditional brakes are pretty simple: you push the brake pedal, the brake pads apply pressure, and the car slows down. But on a slippery surface, it's easy to clamp the brakes hard enough that the wheels stop turning and begin to slide on the road surface. This can be very serious, as it causes the car to skid unpredictably out of control. Hence, drivers learned techniques for preventing that kind of uncontrolled slide. 

The technique is to firmly pressure the brakes until the tires are just about to break loose, then let off slightly to allow the tires to resume rolling. This process is repeated in rapid succession, “pumping” the brakes to get the maximum braking grip without skidding. It takes some practice to learn how to sense this "just about to break loose" moment, but it generally works pretty well once drivers have practiced and mastered the technique.

Braking With an ABS System

But "works pretty well" is not quite good enough when it comes to a phenomenon that can kill drivers on the road, and so a system was eventually developed that did almost exactly the same thing as a driver pumping the brakes, but much, much faster. This is ABS.

ABS “pulses” the entire brake system multiple times per second, using a computer to determine whether any of the wheels are about to slide and releasing brake pressure at precisely the right time, making the braking process much more efficient.

To brake properly using ABS, the driver presses down hard on the brake pedal and holds it there. It can be a somewhat alien and alarming sensation to a driver not familiar with ABS, since the brake pedal will pulsate against your foot, and the brakes themselves make a grinding sound. Do not be alarmed—this is entirely normal. Drivers should not, though, try to pump the brakes in the traditional manner, as this interferes with the ABS doing its job. 

There is no question that ABS is a better braking system than traditional systems. Although some traditionalists argue that older brakes are better, there are many, many measurement studies that show ABS brake systems stop a vehicle quicker, without loss of control, in almost all circumstances.