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ABS: stopping crashes, and saving lives


Anti-lock Braking Systems, called ABS for short, have been included on many motor vehicles built from the 1980s.

So, beyond the fairly unhelpful ‘useful safety feature’ explanation, what are they, really?

ABS is a feedback and control system that shares the braking force equally across all wheels of a vehicle, in a way that prevents the brakes locking up – reducing chances of the vehicle skidding out of the driver’s control.

In modern vehicles, sensors on each wheel provide feedback in fractions of a second to a central computer, allowing it to control deceleration through pulse braking much faster and more efficiently than a human can – while preventing the wheels from locking. (It’s much harder to steer effectively when you skid.)

ABS controls how much brake fluid gets pumped into the brake rotors or drums, to stop them from getting flooded. If they flood, they can lock, and cause a vehicle to skid.

With older cars, people would gently pump the brakes to slow down or stop. Now, technology has been developed to do it better than most humans can.

This rapid on-off braking is what creates that distinctive juddering feeling the driver feels through the brake pedal when it gets pressed hard. ABS is made to do this – this feedback tells you it’s working.

Driving safer on New Zealand roads

On New Zealand roads, ABS can help you stay in control of your vehicle in our challenging and unique driving conditions.

You may need to slow down rapidly, as you come across a surprise backlog of traffic after a multi-lane motorway merges into a single lane offramp, as often encountered on motorways in Wellington.

Or perhaps you run into black ice on the southern leg of a winter drive on State Highway 1. Or some loose gravel on a highway shoulder out back of Wanganui causes you to slew a little more than you’d like to. Or you aquaplane through a puddle, following heavy rain. ABS can help in all of these situations, when many drivers would slam on the brakes.

ABS brakes can help drivers keep control in an emergency. However, part of being a good driver is to handle situations before they become situations – always drive to the conditions.

ABS History

1929 French mechanic Gabriel Voisin designs an early anti-lock braking system (ABS), based on a system of flywheels. Voisin’s invention was used in some early aeroplane designs.

1958 Royal Enfield tests a mechanical ABS system on the Super Meteor cycle. Though the system showed promise, it was never put into production, as it was expensive and unreliable.

1970 Ford adds optional "Sure-track" ABS to the rear wheels of its Lincoln Continentals.

1971 Chrysler introduces the first computer-controlled braking system on the 1971 Imperial; General Motors introduces the optional "Trackmaster" rear-wheel ABS system to its Cadillacs; The Nissan President becomes Japan’s first ABS-equipped car.

1988 BMW’s K-100 range of motorcycles features ABS as an available option – the first manufactures motorcycle to do so. Taking this option adds seven kilograms to the bike’s weight. Advances in manufacturing materials and design mean modern systems weigh as little as 0.7kg.

2004 Researchers from Monash University, in Melbourne, Australia, publish findings showing ABS reduces the risk of multiple vehicle crashes by 18 percent, and that many cars can stop in shorter distances with ABS, compared to without it.

2010 The US-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety releases a study stating motorcycles with ABS are 37 percent less likely to be involved in a fatal crash than models without ABS.

2012 In its Safer Journeys Plan 2013-15, New Zealand government says it is likely to include ABS as a mandatory safety feature in new safety standards for new vehicles.