Disabling ABS to Drive in The Snow Is An 'Extremely Bad Idea'

Aaron Cole
by Aaron Cole
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Every other year or so, the same site/email/thread/rumor goes around:

“Did you know that your car’s ABS system actually makes driving in snow WORSE?! And the worser part is, you can’t even turn it off! Automakers and the government are the worstest!”

Except that’s not true.

The origins of the rumor are relatively easy to find:

“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.” ( Emphasis theirs.)

“Ive (sic) been driving on ice for over a month and another 2-3 month to go. I just dont (sic) like the jeep deciding how my brake is going to work,” a CarTalk Forum user wrote.

“I have done my homework, and I wish to safely disable ABS on my vehicle. If I could “tune” the ABS to activate farther down the pedal as to only kick in during panic stops, that would probably work as well.”

And so on.

“I would say it’s an extremely bad idea,” said Mike Rizzo, Technical-Fellow for Chassis Controls at General Motors. “If I’m driving and let the front axle lock before the rear axle, I’m going to get into a situation where I have terminal understeer … and the vehicle is not going to want to turn.”

Short answer: Steering > No Steering. Disabling anti-lock brakes also disables traction control, which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated reduces fatal vehicle crashes by 30 percent in sedans and 63 percent in SUVs.

Rizzo said he frequently hears the questions, and the logic behind disabling ABS isn’t entirely unfounded: Piling snow in front of dead-straight wheels would shorten braking distance. Digging in is better. Threshold braking makes for safer stops.

“In all reality, the computer is better and designed to (pump the brakes) faster than you can,” he said.

Rizzo said he’s often asked why engineers can’t program an ABS controller that could recognize when the wheels are straight and allow drivers to lock up wheels to “wedge” snow in front of the wheels.

“That’s technically correct in a test environment on a highly deformable test surface — meaning you can get a ‘wedge’ in front of a tire — but I would say that’s more applicable to gravel than snow. Snowy surfaces are generally more polished, even with just a little bit of traffic on them,” he said.

Even with studded tires, rotating wheels are directly proportional to steering control. Locking wheels effectively makes the car uncontrollable.

“When you get on very slippery surfaces and lock the wheels, it can take seconds for those wheels to start spinning back up to the velocity of the vehicle. There’s not a lot of road friction to push back on the tire to start spinning them back up,” he added.

Same goes for threshold braking.

“You go back 20 to 30 years and people were taught to ‘pump the brakes’ on snow to lock up and then release the wheel to get it back up to spinning with the rest of the car. That’s what ABS is doing — and it’s much faster,” he said.

For new drivers, or drivers new to snow, Rizzo said it’s best to practice in parking lots to understand how to better control cars in slippery conditions. Slowing down and steering into shoulders is more effective than locking up wheels, he said.

Or, again: Steering > No steering.

Aaron Cole
Aaron Cole

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20 of 221 comments
  • Hybridkiller Hybridkiller on Jan 26, 2016

    Ok, for all you awesomely amazing expert drivers with mad winter driving skills - ABS is not intended for you. It's intended for all those people who only THINK they are awesomely amazing expert drivers with mad winter driving skills. Alright? Are we done here?

    • See 5 previous
    • Lou_BC Lou_BC on Jan 27, 2016

      @hybridkiller rpn453 - it would then depend on the definition of a "safety benefit". ABD does not alter the outcome of catastrophic crashes which lead to fatalities because people make massive driver errors that no system can extricate them from. That fact was proven statistically since the inception of ABS. Another point is that even in non-fatal crashes ABS does not change the outcome because poor drivers once again put them in a situation that is not correctible by ABS. ABS can help extricate a driver from a crash but that depends on the driver not completely panicking and using the technology to full advantage. ABS has helped me avoid several crashes. I've seen that truth time and time over the 20 years I worked as a paramedic.

  • Power6 Power6 on Jan 27, 2016

    All this "normal people need ABS but I dont" is pure Internt gold. Looks like comments per day is directly proportional to level of delusion, which seems about right.

    • See 11 previous
    • Rpn453 Rpn453 on Jan 28, 2016

      @rpn453 "There you have it………. testosterone trumps technology" It's a great learning tool, if you manage to survive into your mid-twenties.

  • 28-Cars-Later "But Assemblyman Phil Ting, the San Franciscan Democrat who wrote the electric school bus legislation, says this is all about the health and wellbeing of Golden State residents. In addition to the normal air pollution stemming from exhaust gasses, he believes children are being exposed to additional carcinogens by just being on a diesel bus."Phil is into real estate, he doesn't know jack sh!t about science or medicine and if media were real it would politely remind him his opinions are not qualified... if it were real. Another question if media were real is why is a very experienced real estate advisor and former tax assessor writing legislation on school busses? If you read the rest of his bio after 2014, his expertise seems to be applied but he gets into more and more things he's not qualified to speak to or legislate on - this isn't to say he isn't capable of doing more but just two years ago Communism™ kept reminding me Dr. Fauxi knew more about medicine than I did and I should die or something. So Uncle Phil just gets a pass with his unqualified opinions?Ting began his career as a real estate  financial adviser at  Arthur Andersen and  CBRE. He also previously served as the executive director of the  Asian Law Caucus, as the president of the Bay Area Assessors Association, and on the board of  Equality California. [url=https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phil_Ting#cite_note-auto-1][1][/url][h3][/h3]In 2005, Ting was appointed San Francisco Assessor-Recorder in 2005 by Mayor  Gavin Newsom, becoming San Francisco’s highest-ranking  Chinese-American official at the time. He was then elected to the post in November 2005, garnering 58 percent of the vote.Ting was re-elected Assessor-Recorder in 2006 and 2010During his first term in the Assembly, Ting authored a law that helped set into motion the transformation of Piers 30-32 into what would become  Chase Center the home of the  Golden State Warriorshttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phil_Ting
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