Anti-lock braking systems use different schemes depending on the type of brakes in use. We will refer to them by the number of channels — that is, how many valves that are individually controlled — and the number of speed sensors.
This is the best scheme. There is a speed sensor on all four wheels and a separate valve for all four wheels. With this setup, the controller monitors each wheel individually to make sure it is achieving maximum braking force.
This scheme, commonly found on pickup trucks with four-wheel ABS, has a speed sensor and a valve for each of the front wheels, with one valve and one sensor for both rear wheels. The speed sensor for the rear wheels is located in the rear axle.
This system provides individual control of the front wheels, so they can both achieve maximum braking force. The rear wheels, however, are monitored together; they both have to start to lock up before the ABS will activate on the rear. With this system, it is possible that one of the rear wheels will lock during a stop, reducing brake and brake pads effectiveness.
This system is commonly found on pickup trucks with rear-wheel ABS. It has one valve, which controls both rear wheels, and one speed sensor, located in the rear axle.
This system operates the same as the rear end of a three-channel system. The rear wheels are monitored together and they both have to start to lock up before the ABS kicks in. In this system it is also possible that one of the rear wheels will lock, reducing brake effectiveness.
This system is easy to identify. Usually there will be one brake line going through a T-fitting to both rear wheels. You can locate the speed sensor by looking for an electrical connection near the differential on the rear-axle housing.
Anti-lock brakes really do help you stop better. They prevent wheels from locking up and provide the shortest stopping distance on slippery surfaces. But do they really prevent accidents? This is the true measure of the effectiveness of ABS systems.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has conducted several studies trying to determine if cars equipped with ABS are involved in more or fewer fatal accidents. It turns out that in a 1996 study, vehicles equipped with ABS were overall no less likely to be involved in fatal accidents than vehicles without. The study actually stated that although cars with ABS were less likely to be involved in accidents fatal to the occupants of other cars, they are more likely to be involved in accidents fatal to the occupants of the ABS car, especially single-vehicle accidents.
There is much speculation about the reason for this. Some people think that drivers of ABS-equipped cars use the ABS incorrectly, either by pumping the brakes or by releasing the brakes when they feel the system pulsing. Some people think that since ABS allows you to steer during a panic stop, more people run off the road and crash.
Some more recent information may indicate that the accident rate for ABS cars is improving, but there is still no evidence to show that ABS improves overall safety.
Cover Image Credit: Private Fleet