How To Tell If Your Car Has ABS? (5 Step Guide)

You’re driving late at night, it’s raining, and your GPS just rerouted you for the fifth time.

When you look up, there’s a deer standing dead center in the road… 

Most drivers have been in this kind of situation at some point.

When you just gotta mash the brake pedal and hope your brakes will keep you safe…

But why just hope?

Why not take a minute to check if your car has the safety features you need, like ABS?

In this guide, you’ll learn:

  • What are the benefits of ABS, and how it works
  • Why you should check if your car has ABS
  • How to tell if your car has ABS, step by step
  • And more!

What Is ABS?

Anti-Lock Braking Systems (ABS) is an incredibly helpful safety feature, allowing drivers to control their vehicle even in the worst situations.

The ABS functionality keeps your car’s tires on the road in the case you need to aggressively slam on the brakes (say, when that deer pops up unexpectedly). With ABS, your wheels won’t lock up or you won’t skid uncontrollably.

What are the Benefits of ABS?

The point of ABS is to allow you to steer towards safety while braking. How it does that is as interesting as it is complicated – basically the brakes detect when your wheels lock up, then pulsate brake pressure so your tires don’t skid.

Without ABS, when you slam the brake pedal, the wheels lock up and stop spinning. Your car only steers if your wheels spin, so no matter how hard you try to steer towards safety, you’ll skid straight into that deer.

Maybe that’s being dramatic, cars were plenty safe to drive before ABS became popular in the ‘90s, you just had to use a technique called pumping the brakes.

And that’s exactly why you should check if your car has ABS, because you should know which braking techniques to do before you have to do it.

When Should You Check If Your Car Has ABS?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration made ABS mandatory  on all cars manufactured after 2012, so this means that your car definitely came with ABS if it’s newer than 2012!

Luckily, ABS has been a popular option since the 1990’s, even though it wasn’t mandatory. This means that cars older than 2012 may still be ABS-equipped with a little luck.

However, because we know that an ABS car reacts much differently in an emergency than a non-ABS car, you don’t want to leave your safety up to luck. 

You should know if your car has ABS in general, but if your car is on the fringe and is 2012 or older then you should definitely check if it has ABS.

Why Should You Check if Your Car has ABS?

Knowing whether your car has ABS means you’ll know if it will automatically pump the brakes when you step on the pedal, or if you need to manually pump your brake pedal to maintain steering and avoid an accident.

Cars with ABS react differently to sudden braking than non-ABS cars, especially when rain or ice is involved. Of course, it’s OK if your car doesn’t have ABS, but you’ll want to use the brakes differently. 

For example, if you’re avoiding a possible accident ahead of you, steering while braking is the best option.

Cars without ABS

But without ABS to pump the brakes, you’ll need to feel when your tires start skidding, then let off the brake pedal enough to regain traction. Otherwise, you won’t be able to steer toward safety.

Cars with ABS

To contrast that, if your car does have ABS, then you’ll do the exact opposite: in an emergency situation with ABS, you want to press hard on the brake pedal and keep it there. Your ABS computer will not only pump the brakes, but regulate pressure to maintain control.

So How Does ABS Work?

Anti-Lock Braking systems have a central computer which monitors ABS sensors at each wheel. 

When you press the brakes hard enough to lock up the wheels, the ABS sensor sends information to the central computer. Then the computer reduces brake pressure until the wheels start spinning again.

The computer repeats this process: brakes lock up, wheels stop spinning, sensors tell the computer, computer releases brake pads, wheels spin, brake pressure returns, etc.

This process is called pumping the brakes, and it allows your wheels to spin while braking hard. An Anti-Lock Braking system can automatically pump the brakes 15 times per second!

Not sure how this helps you stop? Keep reading for a deeper technical dive!

How Exactly Does ABS Help Your Car Stop?

Well, your wheels have two types of movement: 

  • Rotational
  • Translational

Rotational is when your wheels are turning and rotating on their axis. This is how your car moves under normal driving conditions.

However, translational movement is when the wheels move with your car’s inertia. Now, this sounds confusing, but most drivers have experienced it before. 

Imagine turning on a snowy road, but because it’s so slick your car goes straight even though you turned the steering wheel. 

Because your tires didn’t have traction, your wheels stopped traveling with rotational movement, and instead followed the inertia of your car and used translational movement.

The same thing happens when you brake so hard that your wheels lock up. Because your wheels no longer move rotationally, they’re going to use translational movement and follow the car’s inertia.

This concept is why ABS makes stopping safer, because it allows your wheels to continue rotating even under heavy braking. 

To clarify this, let’s examine an emergency braking situation. Even though we’re braking as hard as possible, oftentimes there isn’t enough time to make a complete stop before crashing.

So the safer way to avoid an accident is to steer towards safety while braking. Maybe this means steering into the shoulder, or runaway ramp, or if the situation calls for it, into a ditch. 

Without ABS, it’s much more challenging to steer the car while braking heavily because you just can’t pump the brake enough.

Let’s examine another situation where ABS improves safety. If there’s ice or oil on the side of a road, for example, then only your right tires are touching this slick road condition.

If you needed to make a quick stop, your right tires would have much less traction and lock up while your left tires continued slowing down. Without ABS, this indifference in momentum would start the car spinning uncontrollably to the left.

However, with ABS, the computer system would recognize that your right tires were locking up and reduce brake pressure on that side. As a result, your car would stay in control and come to a stop quicker.

Of course, this is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ABS, and I highly recommend continuing your braking education with further resources!

Check out this video if you want to go deeper and have some visuals in understanding how Anti-Lock Braking System (ABS) works!

What Do You Need To Know About Checking For ABS?

Checking if your car is equipped with ABS may only take a minute or two, and can usually be done from the comfort of your driver seat!

If you think that your car’s ABS system is not working correctly, take it to your dealership or mechanic. ABS systems are incredibly complex, computerized features, and repairs or a diagnosis should be performed by trained professionals.

What Are The Different Ways to Check for ABS?

There are essentially two simple methods of how to tell if your car has ABS.

  1. Inspect your car for any and all indications of ABS. This is the method I will detail below, because this method is safe, easy, and conclusive. The step-by-step guide below will clearly show you where to look on your car, and what you’ll be looking for to tell if your car has ABS.
  1. Brake hard while driving and see if your tires skid. I DO NOT RECOMMEND THIS! Using this method is unnecessarily dangerous, the car can react unexpectedly, and it can cause damage to your tires. I only mention this method so you know not to do it.

What Do You Need To Check For ABS?

Checking for ABS is a simple job which doesn’t require many tools. Depending on which method works best to check your car, here are all the supplies you’ll need:

  • A car jack and jack stands
  • A tire iron or lug nut (must be the correct size to fit the lug nuts holding your wheel on)
  • Your car’s ignition key
  • Original owner’s manual (not necessarily required)

How To Tell If Your Car Has ABS (5 Steps)

Step 1: Check your owner’s manual

The first step on your journey to know if your car has ABS is reading your owner’s manual. If you have the owner’s manual handy, read the section on safety features. 

If it says that your car is equipped with ABS, congratulations because your work is done!

Maybe you bought your car used and you don’t have the original owner’s manual.

Don’t worry about it, buying a used car saves you so much money, it’s well worth not having the owner’s manual! Just follow the steps below.

Step 2: Illuminate your instrument cluster

Checking the dashboard warning lights for an ABS light will be the next easiest way to tell what kind of brake system your car has.

However, warning lights normally only turn on if there’s a problem, and you can’t see the warning lights when they’re off. Luckily, all cars have a simple method to momentarily turn on every dashboard warning light.

To do this, go ahead and get in your driver’s seat. Take your car key, put it in the ignition like you would to start the car, but only turn the key one click. Don’t start the engine.

By turning the key one click, all of your instrument panel warning lights will turn on for a few seconds, even lights like ABS that you normally don’t see.

Step 3: Find the light

Scan your dashboard to find the ABS light, if it appears. It’s location in the instrument panel varies, but it usually appears as a yellow ring around the letters, “ABS.”

You may have to repeat step 2 a few times to check all the lights, because the ignition “On” position only illuminates your warning lights for a few seconds. 

If you see the ABS light appear, then disappear after a few seconds, that means that your car has fully functioning ABS!

If that light ever stays on, this means your ABS has an issue. It may be as simple as low brake fluid or a failed sensor, but it should be properly diagnosed by a qualified mechanic.

While we’re at it, now’s a good time to familiarize yourself with all the common warning lights. You’d hate to have a light come on while driving and have no idea what it means!

If you do not see the light at all, then your car likely does not have ABS, but it is still possible! 

To be completely sure if you have ABS or not, you’ll have to look behind your brakes for the ABS sensor. Just follow the steps below!

Step 4: Remove wheel

To look for an ABS sensor, you’ll first have to remove the wheel.

While the car is still on flat ground, take your tire iron and loosen all the lug nuts holding one of your front wheels on. Don’t unscrew the lug nuts entirely, just barely loosen them.

Now grab your car jack, and lift the wheels comfortably off the ground, with enough room to place your jack stands under.

Unscrew your lug nuts completely, then remove the wheel and set it aside.

If you’re not certain you know how to jack up a car correctly, check out this video. Better safe than sorry!

Step 5: Look for ABS sensor

If your car has ABS, it will definitely have an ABS sensor. They’re usually located on the axle, just behind the brake rotor. 

Use a flashlight if it’s too dark, but look for a plastic sensor that plugs into your axle – usually ¾” wide.

The ABS sensor should have a black electrical wire coming out of it, roughly the thickness of a pencil.

Don’t confuse it with the brake fluid hose, which is a thicker, metal lined hose coming out of the brake caliper.

If you have found an ABS sensor, then your car does indeed have Anti-Lock Brakes!

If not, then it’s safe to say that your car does not have this feature. But that’s ok, because now you know you’ll have to pump the brakes yourself!

My Final Thoughts on How to Tell if Your Car Has ABS

If your car was made before 2012, I highly recommend using the methods above to check if you have ABS. Some cars were equipped with ABS as early as the 1970s, so even a classic car is worth checking!

It only takes a minute, and it’s information you should definitely know before you need to stop a car in an emergency.

Things happen all the time on the road that we can’t plan for, so it just makes sense to check the dashboard lights for ABS on any car you drive.

Stay safe, and good luck out there!

Connor Morehouse

Connor Morehouse

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