Is the ABS warning light on my dash urgent?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Mar 01, 2001

Dear Tom and Ray:

I'm a 70-year-old-plus widow who needs your help. I'm much better at being a grandmother than I am at figuring out the new features of my car. I have a 1993 Mercury Grand Marquis LS. It's a wonderful car and has many good safety features. But I don't know much about them. The ABS light on the dashboard came on recently and stayed on for a couple of days. I called the dealer and he said the testing will cost about $60, and if it's a bad sensor the bill will be more than $200. Is this something I should take care of right away? -- Carol

TOM: I would, Carol. The ABS light comes on and stays on when the Antilock Braking System (ABS) isn't working right. On this car, you'll still have brakes if the ABS fails (that's not true on all cars). So in your case, you can continue to drive the car until you get it fixed -- you just won't have the "antilock" portion of your brakes working.

RAY: Antilock brakes allow you to keep steering the car in an emergency stop. Before there was ABS, if you slammed your foot on the brake, there was a high likelihood that the car would skid out of control or turn sideways. So you used to have to pump the brakes, in a crude attempt to both stop and maintain control of the car.

TOM: ABS "pumps the brakes" 1,000 times better than you could ever do it, and it does it automatically. It uses electronic sensors at each wheel to anticipate wheel lock-up. And just before a wheel locks up and causes a skid, the ABS automatically releases then reapplies that brake, many times a second. So you get the maximum controllable stopping.

RAY: And it probably IS one of those wheel sensors that has gone bad, Carol. That's the most common ABS repair we see in our shop, at least on Fords.

TOM: And you might as well fix it now. An emergency stop is, by definition, not one you can plan in advance. So you'd be best served by having the ABS ready and working whenever you happen to need it next.

RAY: So get it taken care of at your earliest convenience, Carol. And then you can forget about your ABS and go back to worrying about your GCS ... your grandchild spoiling.

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