SOMETIMES, an idea that’s brilliant in theory is completely rubbish in practice. These ideas can include, but are not limited to, Marxist economics, Prohibition of alcohol in the ’30s, New Coke, the Ford Edsel, filling the Hindenburg with hydrogen, building the city of New Orleans below sea level, the chump who sued McDonalds over its hot coffee, high fructose corn syrup, and countless others truly terrible ideas over the years.
Add to that list anti-lock brakes on cars, commonly known as ABS. First commonly used in the early 1970’s on cars, the idea is brilliant in theory. The automaker installs a little speed sensor on each of the four wheels – and when one or more wheels suddenly stops moving (indicating that the driver has pressed the brake too hard, causing the wheel to ‘lock up’), the car’s computer will over-ride the driver’s braking and release the brake momentarily, enough for the wheel to re-establish traction. Once the wheel is turning normally again, the computer will reapply the brake, rinsing and repeating until the car stops moving. This results in an odd “chirp-chirp-chip” sound coming from the wheels and a serious shudder that is often transmitted through the steering wheel – that’s the ABS working properly.
The reasons for installing these systems appear obvious – it’s vastly more difficult to control a vehicle when the wheels are locked up.
But is it safer? The answer is both yes and no. In the case of most drivers (assuming that we are talking about lowest common denominator here), the answer is probably yes. Today’s road driving test (as of 2005 when I took mine, at any rate) consisted of about fifteen minutes in a parking lot along with some time on back residential streets with a police officer riding shotgun. They didn’t teach me how to correct understeer, how to properly rock the car out of snow, or what to do when the car begins to skid.
To be fair to the DMV – it is probably on page 129 of the driving manual that you can pick up as a “study aid” before taking the written test. But does everyone actually take this to heart – and go apply it in a safe, empty parking lot so he or she knows how to react in an actual emergency?
The answer to that is, sadly, a decided ‘no’ and thus, in those cases, ABS is better than nothing. When faced with a low traction situation, an inexperienced driver is liable to push on the brakes harder and his bladder empties as he sails into the embankment. ABS corrects this by pumping the brakes for you and allowing someone to maintain a modicum of steering ability while still braking.
Except that stomping on the brakes and leaving your foot there flies in the face of every instruction ever given to you during a driving course or from any experienced driver.
The driver who knows what he’s doing benefits little from ABS. Time spent in an empty parking lot will quickly educate you on what “threshold braking” is – how fully you can press the brakes without locking up the wheels. Knowing your car’s mechanical limits is just as effective as ABS braking – and far safer, since invariably ABS like all mechanical systems fail at some point.
And in cases of limited traction such as snow, ice, and mud – ABS is actually detrimental to your safety, as it significantly (and needlessly) increases stopping distance. In snow or mud, a locked up wheel will dig into the snow – and provide considerable stopping power. If ABS prevents the wheel from locking in this case, almost no braking will occur. Consider the following situation, which happened to yours truly just today.
The driver is going down a snowy road at 25 MPH (position 1 on my crude Paint drawing). He wants to turn right into Wal-Mart, so he begins getting on the brakes and after a few seconds begins to turn right into the side street. Problem is, his car has ABS (red line, position 2). ABS prevents the wheels from locking up, so they continue to spin freely – and there’s no braking happening.
In about two seconds, yours truly is still doing 25 MPH, and his right-turn isn’t producing the intended result, because the wheels have insufficient traction to turn the car at 25 MPH in the snow. And traction control – the mirror machinery of ABS that prevents wheels from spinning when you floor the gas pedal – prevented me from gunning it, getting traction, and forcing the vehicle to the right. So he sails directly into the embankment. (Position 3, red line). But-for the ABS preventing proper braking, he would have slowed considerably before the critical moment – and could have made the turn (position 3, blue line).
I spent the next ten minutes with a shovel, trying to clear enough snow to give myself a path out.
You could fairly say that I shouldn’t have taken the turn at that speed – and you would probably be correct. But that doesn’t change that I had the ability to correct any error, any spin, and any wheel locking – and that the ability was negated by a “safety” feature.
And that, friends, is unacceptably dangerous. I wouldn’t mind if the car had an “ABS override” or “traction control override” – but increasingly, cars do not have a button on the dashboard to this effect. In fact, Federal law mandated that all cars model year 2012 and later must include ABS and other “safety” features, ostensibly to reduce crashes.
Which leads me to the final premise of this article – how does the minority of drivers who are actually educated on how to drive in emergency situations defeat these “safety” features that just invariably get us into trouble?
In seven years of driving, I’ve owned three cars – the first lacked ABS, it was broken from day one in the second car, and only the third has functioning ABS. Which I will be disabling as soon as possible. I’ve had many, many close calls with other cars in that seven years – and I successfully avoided them all without the help of ABS. This system will get me into more trouble than it’s worth.
The most effective method (and the crudest) is simply to pull the corresponding fuse. Most cars have their fuse box under the glove box on the front passenger’s side, although this can vary. All fuse boxes will come with an accompanying diagram that illustrates which fuse serves which device on the vehicle. Consider this sample fuse box, taken from a Volkswagen Beetle.
To disable ABS in the Beetle, just pull fuse #9 and you’re good to go. The ABS light will likely light up on your dashboard. Ignore it. If it bothers you, then I’ll gladly sell you some electrical tape to cover it up. Now take that car to an empty parking lot and educate yourself on what it can (and cannot) do.