Why It’s Important to Service Traction Control & Stability Control
If your traction control system (TCS) or electronic stability control (ESC) warning light turns on and stays on, don’t ignore it. It probably means a safety-related part or system has failed and should be addressed as soon as possible – and chances are good it won’t be a do-it-yourself project.
Your vehicle’s traction and stability control lights should come on briefly every time you start your engine, indicating the systems are working. Several other warning lights on your car’s dashboard do the same thing. The lights should also illuminate or flash when TCS or ECS is active and trying to maintain the car’s traction. But if a light stays on for more than a few seconds, it means something is wrong, and the system has been disabled. It’s probably time to get the traction control serviced.
What Are Traction & Stability Controls?
Since the 2012 model year, all cars and light trucks have been federally mandated to have electronic stability control, a safety feature designed to keep them from skidding or sliding on wet, icy, or gravel-strewn roads. TCS is integrated into ECS, and many late-model vehicles won’t have a separate warning light or dashboard switch for TCS.
Traction and stability control may have a brand name in your car, such as GM’s Stabilitrak.
Identifying the TCS Warning Light
The light that warns you of an issue with your traction control system is usually an icon of a swerving car (it looks like a car with wavy lines under it). It may also be a picture of a tire with the acronym “TC” in it and a line through it.
Identifying the ECS Warning Light
If your vehicle has stability control, its warning light may be an exclamation point in a triangle with a circular arrow around it. It may also be that swerving car icon.
Turning Traction Control and Stability Control Off
It is possible to turn traction control or stability control off. Doing so will usually be accompanied by a warning light reading “TRAC OFF” or “TCS OFF,” or it may simply have an icon of a swerving car with “OFF” under it.
Drivers may want to turn off stability or traction control for a few reasons, including being stuck in snow or sand or engaging in certain types of performance driving on a closed track.
That said, when you’re done, it’s important to turn the traction control back on. If you’re driving and you see the “off” icon, pull over when it’s safe and find the traction or stability control button. It should look similar to the warning light, reading “TRAC OFF,” “TCS OFF,” “ESC,” or just “OFF” with the icon of a swerving car under it. Press it, and the dashboard light should go off.
What Could Go Wrong?
Traction control relies on wheel-speed sensors to detect when one drive wheel is spinning faster than the others, meaning it has lost traction. TCS then dials back on engine power and applies the brakes to the spinning wheel until traction is restored.
Stability control relies on the same wheel-speed sensors as the antilock braking system, so if one of those sensors conks out, all three safety systems could be affected.
The wheel-speed sensors, wiring, and other hardware for TCS operate where the rubber meets the road, so they’re subject to a lot of abuse from rough roads, water, snow, salt, and dirt, all of which can cause them to fail. They also feed information to an electronic control unit that can die, so the cause of a steady warning light should be diagnosed by a qualified mechanic with the right scan tool and repair information.
When the TCS light stays on persistently, it should generate a trouble code in the onboard diagnostics system that a mechanic can read with a diagnostic scan tool. Without scanning, it would be difficult to figure out which wheel triggered the light, let alone identify the failed part.
Before heading to a repair shop, though, check to make sure you or someone else didn’t accidentally turn the switch off (if your vehicle has a dashboard switch that does so).
Either way, turn off the light by hitting the switch to engage TCS. If it doesn’t turn off the light, or if the light keeps coming back on and staying on, your car needs attention.
Can I Drive Without Traction Control Working?
Yes, you can. You can also drive without stability control or antilock brakes – it’ll be just like driving back in the 1980s.
However, if a TCS or ESC warning light is on, you could be driving without all three systems. You should drive more cautiously than usual, especially in the rain, snow, or other slippery conditions, as your vehicle will be operating without features that help maintain traction, steering control, and braking capability.
Traction control and stability control are programmed to turn on every time a vehicle is started, and manufacturers recommend they always stay on, except when a vehicle is stuck in snow or mud. In those cases, turning off TCS allows the driver to rock a vehicle back and forth, using the car’s throttle to power out of being stuck. Just be sure to turn it back on before you drive away.
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