Traction Control: When It Can–and Cannot–Save Your Life

If your car or light truck is relatively new – say, ten years old or less – it may be equipped with traction control or its more sophisticated cousin, electronic stability control (ESC). These systems are designed to help you maintain control of your vehicle in dangerous circumstances.

Certainly, automotive technology can help save lives, but there are limits to its capacity to protect you and your passengers. Knowing how systems like ESC work helps you understand how they contribute to improved automotive safety, and why you should rely on smart behavior behind the wheel, even if your vehicle has the latest safety technology.

Integrated with antilock brakes (ABS), traction control was introduced on production vehicles decades ago and is a precursor to ESC. It senses wheel spin at individual wheels and reduces throttle and/or applies brakes to individual wheels to better maintain traction at all four wheels.

traction control - electronic stability control ESC light NAPA Know How blog
The term “traction control” is sometimes used interchangeably with ESC, but the latter is a more sophisticated system and is now more common. Premium automakers have offered the technology since the 1990s, and GM’s StabiliTrak and Ford’s AdvanceTrac systems are examples of early ESC systems from mainstream domestic automakers. Starting with the 2012 model year, all new cars and light trucks are required to include ESC as standard safety equipment.

The big difference between ESC and traction control is that ESC is designed to aid in steering. Like traction control, it uses wheel speed sensors to indicate loss of traction and can limit throttle and/or apply brakes to prevent the driver from losing control of the vehicle. ESC takes it a step further by measuring the angle of the steering wheel and responding with brake inputs accordingly, helping the vehicle to stay on the driver’s intended path.

ESC can be effective, for example, if you swerve at the last minute to avoid a squirrel darting across a warm, dry street. Without touching the brake pedal, ESC uses the braking system to keep your car from sliding, either plowing forward or spinning out. Add standing water – or, worse yet, icy pavement – and the system’s ability to protect you is reduced. ESC is not magic; it relies on the traction of the tires to help you maintain control. If no traction is available due to conditions like icy roads, ESC can do little to help you maintain control.

To get the most of your vehicle’s safety system, drive smart. Slow down and leave plenty of space. Drop the distractions and pay attention to the road. And even in the newest car with the most advance safety features, take extra precautions in harsh weather. Modern safety systems are most effective in the hands of wise, careful drivers.

about author

Nick Palermo

Nick Palermo is a freelance automotive writer and NAPA Know How blogger. Since becoming an auto news and reviews contributor at AutoTrader.com in 2011, he has broadened his coverage of the automotive industry to include topics like new car technology, antiques and classics, DIY maintenance and repair, industry news and motorsports. A committed advocate for automotive media professionals, Nick is a member of the Greater Atlanta Automotive Media Association.

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