ABS and Traction Control Light On – Meaning, Causes & Reset

It can be confusing and worrying when you are driving down the road and suddenly see the ABS and Traction Control light come on. What do these lights mean, and is your car about to break down?

The ABS and Traction Control are safety systems that allow the driver to maintain more control over the vehicle. Since 2012, the federal government has required all cars and light trucks to have them. Although these lights usually aren’t a cause for concern, like the ESP BAS light, they should not be ignored – they are there for you and your passenger’s safety.

So, in this article, you’ll find out why your ABS and Traction Control warning lights may be on! We’ll also cover and explain what these lights mean and what you should do if they come on.

What are ABS and Traction Control?

Before diving into what would cause the abs and traction control light to come on and what it means, I wanted to briefly describe what ABS and Traction Control are.

Anti-lock Braking System (ABS)

ABS, or Anti-lock Braking system, is a safety feature introduced in the 1950s and designed to prevent skidding and accidents caused by sudden braking. It allows your car’s wheels to maintain contact with the road while braking and prevents the brakes from locking up.

When you step on the brake pedal with full pressure, typically, your wheels would lock up, and you would easily lose control, but not with ABS.

ABS works by measuring each wheel’s speed and comparing it to the car’s speed. So, when a wheel is about to lock up, the ABS system automatically applies and releases the brake pressure several times per second. This prevents the wheel from locking up and allows you to maintain control of your car during emergency braking situations.

Thanks to ABS, all vehicles with this safety feature are today safer to drive and often means shorter stopping distances. It’s an important invention that can help you stay safe on the road when you, or someone else, quickly need to brake.

Traction Control System (TCS)

Just like the ABS, the Traction Control System is a safety feature designed to prevent loss of traction and help the driver maintain control by preventing your car’s wheels from slipping. The traction Control system also does this by monitoring the speed of the wheels, but instead of braking, it reduces power to the wheels that are slipping.

Traction control was traditionally a safety feature in premium and high-performance cars. Some manufacturers saw this safety feature as less necessary in most cheaper or mid-premium vehicles. However, traction control systems have become widely available in non-performance cars, and since 2012 it’s a mandatory feature in all passenger cars and light trucks in the U.S. 

When used properly, it can help to prevent the car from losing control and make driving on slippery roads such as wet, icy, or snowy conditions much safer.

What Does ABS and Traction Control Light on mean?

Now that we know what ABS and Traction Control are, let’s move on to what it means when these lights illuminate.

When the lights pop up on your dashboard simultaneously, it’s easy to think they are related. But, they are two different systems with two different meanings, but with the same purpose – to help the driver maintain steering control.

A problem in any of these systems will usually illuminate a dashboard warning light, which means the ABS and TCS are disabled. The reason why both lights may be on is that some triggers are shared between the two.

For example, they both use the same wheel-speed sensor to detect tire slip or wheel lock-up during acceleration or braking. And both the ABS and TCS often use the same control module to monitor and operate these systems.

Regarding the systems being disabled, traction control doesn’t really come into play unless you’re driving on slippery surfaces. However, the ABS is arguably a more important safety feature. And if the TCS is disabled, you can prevent most of the slippage by being lighter on the gas pedal.

Is it Safe to Drive With ABS and Traction Control Light On?

If the ABS and Traction Control light comes on while you’re driving, but there are no other warning lights illuminated, don’t panic. Try to turn off your vehicle and then restart it. If a fluke in the TCS system triggered the warning light, it should go out when you restart the engine.

However, it’s likely time to call a preferred mechanic and get a system diagnosis if the light comes back.

Until it’s fixed, you should gently drive with the precaution of avoiding hard braking and hard acceleration that could provoke a skid or the wheels slipping. But as mentioned above, you can often control tire slippage by lifting off the accelerator.

However, when talking about things to avoid. If both the TCS and ABS warning lights come on along with the brake warning light, you should NOT drive your car until the problem is fixed.

With these three lights illuminating, your entire braking system can be affected, and you may be unable to stop your vehicle when needed. Driving the car can put you and your passengers at risk, so it’s recommended to have your vehicle towed to a repair shop to diagnose the cause.

Causes Abs and Traction Control Light On

There are many reasons why your ABS and Traction Control light would come on. We’ve listed 9 of the most common causes below:

1. Faulty Control Module

The ABS control module is the system’s brain and runs diagnostic checks and processes the information from the wheel-speed sensors and other components.

There are a few different things that could cause a faulty ABS control module. There could be a problem with the power supply to the module. Another possibility is that if the software is not working properly, it can cause the system to malfunction.

If both the ABS and Traction Control lights illuminate, it might be due to a failing control module.

2. Faulty Wheel Speed Sensor

The wheel-speed sensors are located at each wheel. They are responsible for monitoring and telling the control module how fast the wheels are turning. If any sensor is not working properly, it likely will send a fault code to the control module, illuminating the ABS and Traction control light on and disabling the systems.

Otherwise, when any of the wheel speed sensors fail, it could cause the ABS system to engage when it is not necessary.

3. Blown Fuse

A blown fuse can cause the ABS light and Traction Control light to come on. Fuses are used to protect against over-current in a circuit.

If the current in the circuit exceeds the rating of the fuse, the fuse will “blow,” and the circuit will be interrupted, which will send a signal to the PCM. This will likely activate the ABS light, the TCS light, or sometimes the Check Engine Light.

4. Low Brake Fluid

Another reason that often indicates a red warning light, along with the ABS light, is low brake fluid. The ABS module measures the amount of brake fluid to warn you if it gets too low.

Since the brake system is hydraulic, it relies on hydraulic pressure to function properly. And if the brake fluids get too low, your vehicle won’t be able to create enough pressure.

Low brake fluid could be due to leakage, such as from a faulty brake master cylinder, but worn brake pads can also be the reason for low brake fluid. Check the brake master cylinder and top it off if needed.

Also read: What Color is Brake Fluid? (Differences & When to Change)

5. Dirt and Dust

A common cause of illuminated ABS and traction control light is dirt and mud. Both ABS and TCS share wheel speed sensors, wires, and connectors, located in a very hostile environment at each wheel.

They can become dirty or blocked with brake dust, road grime, or snow and ice, and also damaged. This may cause the sensors to malfunction and send a false signal to the control module, which will turn on the warning lights.

If you think it might be due to dirt and debris, try to wash it off with a pressure washer. However, this won’t fix the problem if a sensor, wire, or connector is damaged.

6. Low Tire Pressure

Some vehicles monitor the tire pressure using ABS systems to “calculate” tire pressure change; with the speed of each wheel. Low tire pressure could cause the wheel speed sensors to detect a difference in rotational speed between the wheels and send inaccurate information to the ABS or Traction control.

The good news is that you can fix the problem by inflating your tires and resetting the tire pressure. However, you may need to clear trouble codes with a diagnostic tool.

7. Faulty Steering Angle Sensor

The steering angle sensor is responsible for relaying important data to the car’s computer system about the steering wheel’s angle and the rate at which the wheels are being turned. This allows the car to perform various safety functions.

One of the symptoms of a faulty steering angle sensor is the Traction Control lights coming on. However, there are a number of reasons why it might fail, including debris and dirt, wire issues, or damage. In most cases, it will need to be replaced.

The steering angle sensor usually costs between $120 and $250, and the labor costs average at $80 to $250.

8. Bad Wheel Alignment

If your vehicle’s wheels are out of alignment, it can cause the Traction Control System to come on. If any of the sensors monitoring the wheel’s speed, or angle, senses that something is wrong, the lights may pop up. However, this cause is rare.

A wheel alignment can be done at most auto shops and is relatively inexpensive, usually around $30 per wheel.

8. Low Battery Voltage

If you’re dealing with battery issues or low voltage, the first indication is that the car battery light comes on.

However, many components and systems, such as the ECU, rely on battery voltage and power to operate. So, if the voltage is low, it can cause problems and inadvertently cause warning lights to come on.

This problem is usually due to a bad alternator and/or a bad or drained battery not generating enough power. Although, if low battery voltage is your problem, more warning lights will illuminate.

If you need to buy a new alternator, expect to pay between $160 and $300, and around $150 for labor. A new battery costs between $50 and $120.

9. Traction Control Turned Off

Whether you or someone else did it on purpose or by accident, the Traction Control light will illuminate your dashboard if it’s turned off manually.

One reason you might want to turn the Traction Control system off is when your car is stuck in the mud, ice, gravel, dirt, or that type of thing. When it’s off, you’ll be able to rock your car backward and forward and hopefully get out of that messy situation.

Locate the Traction Control Turned Off button and turn it back on. The light should now disappear from your vehicle dashboard.

Other common causes

Other more uncommon causes of an ABS light or TCS light could be issues with the computer programming, limp mode, faulty steering rack or defective ABS pump. And as you can see, many things can cause these warning lights, so to figure out what’s going on, you must know how to troubleshoot and determine the cause.

Troubleshooting ABS and Traction Control Light

Now you know the common causes why the ABS- and TCS light may indicate something is wrong. But how do you determine which one it is?

Well, diagnosis of ABS and TCS issues usually requires an OBD reader (also called a diagnostic scanner or scan tool) to find the specific error/trouble code that triggered the warning light. This specific trouble code is stored in your car’s error memory and can help identify what component is causing the fault.

The good news is you can get an OBD2 reader for an affordable price if you want to buy one yourself and not always have to rely on a car mechanic to perform a diagnosis.

And even if you only perform minor repairs on your vehicle, an OBD2 scanner is a great investment. You can read more about OBD readers here.

How to Reset ABS and Traction Control Light

Ignoring the issue and resetting the ABS and TCS light does not prevent this problem. Instead, it can lead to expensive repairs and even accidents. Therefore, you should never reset the warning lights before identifying and fixing the problem.

Without A Scan Tool

This is how you can reset an ABS light by disconnecting your battery. By doing so, the whole electrical system resets.

Follow these steps to clear the ABS light.

  1. Open your hood, and secure it. Locate the battery and remove the negative battery cable.
  2. Wait at least five seconds.
  3. Reconnect the negative battery cable to the battery terminal.
  4. Tighten the battery cable with a socket wrench.

If your ABS light is malfunctioning, it should now reset if you follow the steps above. However, the light may turn back on if there’s still a problem with your brake system.

With an OBD2 scanner

Note: If the vehicle was made before 1996, you’d need to get an original OBD1 scanner. The OBD2 scanner will work on most vehicles made after 1996.

Follow these steps to clear ABS/TCS with an OBD2 scanner.

  1. Locate the diagnostic link connector (DLC) port for your OBD2 scanner. It’s usually located under and to the left of your steering wheel.
  2. Connect the OBD2 code reader to the DLC port.
  3. Enter the requested information and select “systems” or “control unit.”
  4. Find TCS/ABS and select “erase codes” or “reset codes.”

It should now clear the warning lights. If the lights keep coming back, it means the problem isn’t fixed.

Final Thoughts

Now that you know a little more about why your ABS and Traction Control light is on, you know exactly what to do to figure out what’s going on.

But, whatever you do, don’t ignore it. These warning lights indicate there is something wrong with the safety systems that are designed to prevent accidents and for you to maintain control of the vehicle.

Thank you for reading!

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Rickard Cefalk

Rickard is the owner of Caraspect.com and a dedicated and avid do-it-yourselfer who has always enjoyed working on his own vehicles since childhood. He now devotes his time to sharing his expert knowledge of car maintenance and other car-related information through his website.

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