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Tuesday, 5 January 2010

ABS - not all that great

I went out for some essential supplies today - just the few miles into town to stock up on spuds and salad. The journey was a nightmare. The road from my hamlet into the main town was as treacherous as any road I have ever driven on. The wet slush had frozen into solid ice, and then a fresh snowfall over the top had partially melted, leaving a smooth and almost friction-free surface.

As I have said before, I am used to winter driving, so I set off with a degree of calm (and, to be honest, a degree of anticipation of sly handbrake turns and power slides). Big mistake. The road was lethally slippery and I saw one car that had slid off the road and into a wall within a mile. When I got to town, I could see that the entire network was gridlocked, so I turned round and headed home. There are a number of moderately steep hills between my house and town, and on one of these I completely lost control. I was in first gear, with the engine at idle speed, so I can't have been doing more that 2-3 mph, but as soon as I reached the top of the hill the car started to accelerate and slide down. At this point I noticed a car coming up the hill towards me, and I realised that the adventure would probably not end well. In the end, by bouncing off the bank beside the road and digging my front wheels into the ditch, fortunately with no damage, I managed to stop and then make slightly more deliberate progress to the bottom of the hill.

The point about all this is that the ABS on my car was completely useless. In fact, worse than useless. A small amount of braking was possible, but then as soon as the ABS came in the car stopped braking altogether and slid forward as if it were a ship at sea. I managed to stop the car by defeating the ABS using the old 'cadence braking' method - brake until the wheels start to lock, release, and repeat. Normally I am a big fan of ABS, as it makes braking on a wet road very safe and idiot-proof. But today I just longed for a switch to turn the damn thing off. The way it took over and then left me with no braking at all was pretty frightening.

Are there any cars made these days without ABS? Or with ABS you can turn off, like the passenger airbags that turned out to kill babies? I'd love to know, before I purchase my next winter car.

(This is an attempt at humour. I only took the car because I hate ice when I'm on a bike. In fact, I probably would have been safer, if less comfortable, on the trailbike, riding slowly and steadily. So my next winter car will probably be a set of knobblies for the XT.)


  1. The instructor at the Mercedes Benz experience day at Brooklands said that ABS was for maintaining steering control and not for stopping in the shortest possible distance (which plainly it is not very good at!). Best to fit studded tyres and not try to defeat the laws of phyics, coefficient of friction and all that...


    I have just had my first spin in many years on a chicane type double roundabout - the car ploughed on and bounced off the kerb and spun...luckily no real damage except to my pride. I'm walking to work tomorrow and that will probably be fun....

  2. Yes, ABS is sold as the ultimate safety aid, but it is only good in certain situations. Mud and ice are two where it is a hindrance rather than a help. If we were to be guaranteed winters like this every year, I would certainly buy a cheap set of wheels and keep winter tyres on them, and then swap over in November and March.

    Glad you survived the little 'incident'. Mind you, those double roundabouts are fun enough, even in the dry.


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