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What is ABS? How anti-lock braking systems improve road safety

Written by
Julie Daniels
Motor insurance comparison expert
17 MARCH 2023
10 min read
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While most changes and advancements in automated technologies are introduced to make our everyday lives easier, they should never come at the expense of safety. In fact, when it comes to driving and road safety as a whole, making use of the innovations at our disposal is no longer just a good idea – it’s a responsibility and a requirement.  
Safety while driving any vehicle should always be your biggest priority, and with fatalities or serious injuries occurring on UK roads every 16 minutes, improving road safety has never been more important. Anti-lock braking systems (ABS) are one of the most effective ways to reduce the chances of an accident on the roads.  
In this informative guide, we’ll look at how these computer-controlled driving safety measures are making our roads a less dangerous place. 

Who is at risk in a road traffic accident?

On a global scale, several different factors can come into play and determine who is at risk in road traffic collisions. In fact, as road safety issues are the leading cause of fatalities for people between the ages of five to 29 years old – half of which are pedestrians and cyclists – The United Nations General Assembly has made a pledge to halve the number of deaths and injuries (currently standing at over 1.3 million) by the year 2030.

What are the main risks that affect road safety?

Before we explore the ways in which anti-lock braking systems improve road safety, it’s important to understand what ABS protects us from. A combination of human errors and a lack of vehicular safety regulation standards make up the predominant risks to road safety.

The most common risks associated with road safety are listed below.

  • Speeding
    Driving at high speeds or exceeding the speed limit increases the chances of a crash happening. Driving at an accelerated speed also increases the potential for a crash to be fatal for either the driver or pedestrian.
  • Driving under the influence
    Drivers are legally limited to 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood, or 35 micrograms of alcohol per 100 millilitres of breath. In the case of drug usage, it is an offence to have any kind of drug in your system that impairs your ability to drive safely.
  • Poor road infrastructures
    Despite the best of intentions, not all roads are designed safely enough to protect road users adequately. This can be down to geographical location, the overall economy of the area, and other factors. Infrastructures that do not make considerations for cyclists, pedestrians, and motorbike riders or implement footpaths and crossing lanes can be extremely dangerous.
  • Vehicle safety standards
    A safer vehicle is less likely to crash or cause injury to others. And with UN initiatives in place for manufacturers to meet impact, airbag, and seat belt regulations, there is a huge potential to decrease the number of accidents caused worldwide.

As you can see, an element of human error plays a huge part across all of these issues, with 90% of all road traffic accidents being linked to mistakes made by someone on the road. On top of the above standards put in place, the need to implement electronic stability controls, detectors, and other sensors has become a vital part of preventing deaths and road accidents.

Understanding anti-lock braking systems

With decades of road safety casualties and death statistics to look at and improve upon, all cars sold in the United Kingdom as of 2004 have included ABS as standard. But how did these safety innovations come to be? And how do anti-lock brakes prevent your vehicle from potential accidents?

The main four components of anti-lock braking systems

In the last 20 years, some promising statistics have highlighted just how effective anti-locking braking systems and safety technology has been for EU roads alone.

EU road traffic fatalities have dropped a total of 50% from 51,400 (2001) to 20,600 (2022). And despite the fact that road safety fatalities have been halved, there are roughly 60 million more cars on EU roads compared to 2001. This combination of drastically reduced deaths and a huge surge in vehicles on EU roads is a testament to how effectively the advanced components of ABS work.

A standard ABS will be made up of the following four primary components:

  • Valves
    The valves of an anti-braking system help to ensure there is the right amount of pressure in your brake lines. It can release pressure when it is too high and helps drivers to maintain control of their vehicles.
  • Pumps
    If or when your valves need to release pressure in any of your brake lines, the pumps help to increase the pressure once again.
  • The speed sensors
    These are imperative to improving road safety due to their ability to warn the anti-braking systems that a wheel is about to become locked and more difficult for the driver to control.
  • The controller
    This is essentially the brain of the ABS. It is a computer within the car itself that can adjust the valves or monitor the speed sensors.

The history of ABS technology

The initial seeds of innovation for ABS technology go back further than you might think. In the early 1900s, there were several slip-prevention methods tried and tested for rail vehicles and aircraft. These systems were intended to assist with controlling the braking pressure and how much the tyres would slide when aircraft pilots needed to break. This resulted in improved performance and fewer burst tyres.

A system that had aspirations of ABS capabilities was also first patented in 1928. However, no working product was ever accomplished. It was not until the 1950s that anti-skid methods were fully implemented in UK aviation, and the later part of that decade saw anti-brake methods tested on motorcycles.

The ABS systems we know today were first patented in 1971 by Mario Palazzetti. By 1983, Honda was offering European cars the chance to have earlier versions of modern anti-lock braking as a feature. In 1987, Mercedes-Benz began to install ABS as standard on all of its cars, and motorcycle manufacturers and car outlets continued to add these innovations through the late 90s-early 2000s.

By July 2004, it was a legal requirement for cars made for European consumption to have anti-lock braking systems in place.

How do anti-locking braking systems work?

When a driver encounters a potential emergency situation, their instinct will always be to hit the brakes as fast and as hard as they can. And while this is a natural reaction to have, the ability to stop a vehicle in the shortest possible distance usually results in the wheels of the vehicle locking, causing the vehicle to skid in the process. 
When the vehicle continues to skid, it’s no longer in the driver’s control due to the lack of traction between the tyres and the road. In other words, despite slamming on the brakes as soon as possible, the driver lacks the control needed to stop quickly and prevent an accident.  
But with anti-locking brakes, the wheels have less chance of locking and skidding recklessly, giving drivers better control of their vehicles. ABS technology uses detection software that senses how many wheels are locked during an emergency brake situation. When the wheels of a vehicle begin to lock, the system takes over and reduces the braking through hydraulic valves, which in turn unlocks the wheels again.  
With the wheels maintaining their rotation, the car and driver are able to move with more ease, in whichever direction needed.  

What are the benefits of using ABS on the road? 

ABS has the obvious benefit of reducing the risk of an accident. But what other road safety improvements can you expect when using this innovative technology? 

  • Traction and control 
    Good traction is a critical part of preventing a severe accident when you need to hit the brakes. And if the rubber on your tyres is gripped firmly onto the surface of the road, you will be in a better position to steer and keep control. 
  • Stop your vehicle faster 
    The ability to stop a car or motorbike quickly can be the difference between a near-miss and an incident. Keeping the traction between your tyres and the surface of the road while braking in an emergency situation means coming to a complete stop faster.
  • A safer stopping procedure 
    Wheel-lock prevention means fewer instances of cars spinning in all directions, unable to safely steer away from other potential collisions. The ability to apply an emergency stop and stay clear from other dangers helps to reduce injuries, deaths, and even damage to road structures.
  • Reduced potential harm upon impact 
    While the benefits of gaining more control of a braking vehicle help to reduce dangerous issues on roads, it also helps to decrease impact in the event of an accident occurring. The lower the chances of skidding and losing control of your direction, the less potential impact on a pedestrian or other vehicle.
  • Consistent across all weather conditions 
    Anti-lock braking systems are adaptable to most terrains and weather conditions, meaning variables like heavy rain or snowfall will not feel as troublesome as it does for vehicles without ABS technology installed. 

Beyond the functionality of your vehicle, there is the added benefit of the peace of mind that having the ABS fitted brings to drivers. This mindset also helps to create more confident, safety-conscience drivers who are more aware of their surroundings. 

Road safety and anti-lock braking systems

ABS technology is not noticeable during normal braking conditions where a standard amount of pressure is applied. It is only in emergency situations where a sudden sharp brake is used that drivers will feel the effect. As such, having them will result in minimal changes to everyday driving.

Through an innovative method of releasing and then applying its valves over and over again, the pump-and-release approach of ABS looks a little like this:

A: The driver hits the brake pedal suddenly 
B: The sensors detect a lock or potential skid hazard 
C: The ABS begins to pump and release in quick succession 
D: The driver is able to maintain control of the vehicle  
It’s a simple system, but one which has a huge impact.  

Using anti-lock braking systems

Due to the innovative computer-controlled methods of ABS, drivers just need to drive as they normally would, and the ABS controller takes care of the rest. However, while anti-locking braking technology is always operating in the background, it is important to know what to expect in the event of a sudden braking situation.

When ABS is fully operational you might experience a rhythmic pulsing in the brake pedal. As stated above, the constant opening and shutting of the valves in your car help to steady the vehicle and allow you to maintain control – this is perfectly normal.

You may also get a vibration in the pedal or even hear a buzzing sound. Again, this is normal. All you need to worry about is braking firmly and preventing the car from stopping in a dangerous position.

Using anti-lock braking systems can help to drastically decrease the chances of an accident occurring, but human elements like panicked and aggressive steering during an emergency can still lead to accidents and potential fatalities.

With ABS, the goal should still always be to remain calm and steer with poise. No matter how many safety improvements are made to vehicles, it is essential to drive at a safe speed and keep a safe distance between other vehicles and yours.


While anti-locking braking systems have provided roads with the means to become safer, it is not enough to sit back and rely on these innovations moving forward. Human error, poor infrastructures, badly marked signs and unkempt road conditions all continue to play a part in road safety.

Europe’s roads are some of the safest in the world, and yet, 65% of fatal accidents are due to violations of traffic rules, while 25% of them are alcohol-related. When you consider that 10-30% of road deaths come from being distracted as well, it provides us with a sobering look at the human elements that can cause an incident.

The future of road safety lies in capitalising on the advancements of ABS while taking a personal responsibility to drive carefully and adhere to the laws of the road. Combining these elements will help to further reduce damage to roads and fatalities, creating a more harmonious driving experience for vehicle users, passengers, and pedestrians alike.

Frequently asked questions about ABS

Automation and road user responsibility should go hand in hand to continue making our roads safer from damage, collisions, injuries and fatalities. But in order to achieve these goals and help create a sound road experience for all, it is key to have all the answers at your disposal. 
Below are some of the most commonly asked questions when it comes to road safety and anti-lock braking systems.  

Do I need to pump the brake pedal to stop in slippery road conditions?

No. This is something drivers may have tried in vehicles without ABS in order to get the wheels unlocked while trying to gain control on a slippery road. A car with anti-lock braking systems in place should not have locked wheels, and pumping the brake pedal with ABS will actually take you longer to come to a standstill.  

How will I know if I have a faulty ABS sensor?

If the light constantly goes on and off again, or if your car is not stopping instantly when you press on your brakes.  

What should you do if your ABS light comes on?

The light usually means that your ABS is not currently activated, and can potentially hinder your control of the car. Generally speaking, it is safe to drive your car when the ABS light comes on. But it is worth listening for any odd noises coming from the wheels, and to take your car to a mechanic as soon as you can.  

Is it safer to have anti-braking systems on a car?

Having ABS gives you a safer method of stopping wheels from locking up during an emergency braking situation. And while it was not specifically designed to shorten your stopping distance, it gives you the ability to maintain steering control and handle your vehicle better. Drivers are still required to keep a safe distance from other cars, adhere to the highway code, and drive carefully on all roads.