When Should You Turn Off Traction Control?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Dec 01, 1997

Dear Tom and Ray:

I recently purchased a 1995 Ford Contour with traction control. On the dash it has a pushbutton switch to turn off the traction control. Nowhere in the operating instructions does it state when it's appropriate to turn off the traction control. Since the traction control is automatic, it operates only when needed. So why would you want to turn it off?

-- Ken

RAY: Excellent question, Ken. Traction control is a nice, new feature that uses the anti-lock brake sensors at the wheels to determine if a wheel is slipping. If it detects that one wheel is going faster than the others, it applies the brakes to that wheel until it regains traction. That helps keep the car from slipping around in the rain and snow. And it works pretty well.

TOM: And the only reason you might turn it off is when it's working too effectively. For example, let's say you're parked on top of a pile of snow. You step on the gas and the wheels start to turn, but they can't get much traction in the snow. The traction control does what it's supposed to do; it uses the brakes to stop the wheels from spinning. The problem is, now you can't get out of the parking space.

RAY: And in that case, you really do want the wheels to spin. So you'd turn the traction control off and start moving back and forth, back and forth ... letting the friction from the spinning wheels melt the snow as you move a little farther forward and a little farther backward each time. And if you do that long enough ...

TOM: You'll eventually burn out the clutch! And end up with your wheels a foot deep in snow.

RAY: Actually, there are times when you CAN successfully "blow out" of a snowbank by letting the wheels spin a bit. You just have to know when to give up and get some help.

TOM: But other than that sort of rare situation, Ken, just leave the traction control on and forget about it. It should serve you well 99.99 percent of the time.

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