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Do I have to repair my old car's ABS system?

My anti-lock brake warning light came on this summer. I couldn't justify the cost to repair the system because the brake module was worth almost as much as the vehicle itself. The mechanic said it was fine to drive that way, but to keep in mind I have to modulate the brake pedal myself. I grew up driving without anti-lock brakes so that hasn't been a problem, but with winter and slick roads coming, I'm wondering if this is legal and safe? – Murray in Chilliwack, B.C.

It's a good thing you have experience; someone who's never driven without an anti-lock braking system (ABS) might be in for a surprise.

The purpose of anti-lock brakes is to keep the wheels from locking and to avoid uncontrolled skidding. Rather than manually pumping the brakes to prevent wheel lock, with ABS, the driver maintains constant pressure on the pedal and the system automatically does the pumping.

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When ABS is engaged, you can still manoeuvre around obstacles. Without ABS, when using maximum braking in a panic situation, you may lock your wheels and subsequently lose steering control.

Anti-lock brakes have been widely available for 20 years, but according to research and data from the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a significant reduction in the risk of fatal crashes didn't result until electronic stability control (ESC) was added.

"Electronic stability control has been very effective in reducing crashes," IIHS spokesperson Russ Rader says. "It's basically a more advanced version of anti-lock brakes that constantly monitors the direction the vehicle is headed compared to the steering wheel input from the driver. So what electronic stability control adds to anti-lock brakes is that ESC can automatically brake individual wheels and, in some cases, reduce the throttle automatically to help keep the vehicle going in the direction the driver intends, to prevent skids and spinouts."

Transport Canada has made electronic stability control mandatory on light-duty vehicles manufactured as of Sept. 1, 2011. ESC requires ABS as its foundation.

Federal regulations specify the safety performance of vehicles as they are manufactured, but not their use, maintenance or aftermarket alterations. The provinces and territories have jurisdiction over the mechanical condition and state of repair of a vehicle for its safe and legal operation on public roads.

In accordance with the Motor Vehicle Act in British Columbia, a vehicle's anti-lock braking system is required to be operational. A peace officer may order a vehicle to be inspected. The inspection manual, authorized under the Act, requires all OEM (original equipment manufacturer) parts to be functional. According to the B.C. Ministry of Transportation, if a vehicle that originally had ABS is ordered for inspection, it would not pass or be permitted back on the road until it is repaired.

"If you don't have anti-locks, hard braking can cause the wheels to lock up, which can send you into a skid. Wheel lockup can result in longer stopping distances and can cause you to lose control," Rader says. "The main benefit of anti-lock brakes is it reduces those problems on wet and slippery roads, so if you think about winter driving it is important to have."

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To comply with provincial regulations and to reduce the risk of skidding on winter roads, you'll want to have your ABS repaired. Or look at the option of purchasing an inexpensive used vehicle with an anti-lock brake system that is still functioning.

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About the Author

Joanne Will is based in Toronto. She has been a regular contributor to The Globe and Mail since 2009. In 2014, she was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan. More


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