Recently, I was on a scuba diving trip with some friends in Mexico. We had rented a Nissan March from the airport and my friend noted how touchy the brakes were. In fact, he approached a speed bump a little too fast, hit the brakes and began sliding. I noted how unusual it was to find a car that didn’t have anti-lock brakes these days. Thus began our debate.
My friend said that none of the cars he had ever owned in the U.S. had anti-lock braking systems (ABS). I insisted that this could not be true, because I had understood that ABS had been a mandatory safety feature on all cars sold in the EU and U.S. since the 1990’s. In fact, while researching electronic stability control (ESC) for a previous article, the safety advantages of ABS systems were commonly referenced as an example of what could be expected from ESC. I had also recalled reviewing the Federal statute that governed ABS. So, I was quite positive that my friend had not owned a car built in the last 20 years without anti-lock brakes. However, I was wrong. Or I was at least partially wrong.
Quite surprisingly, ABS systems only became mandatory on all new vehicles a few years ago! While ABS systems have been required on all new passenger cars sold in the EU since 2004, in the US it took us nearly another decade to mandate this vital safety feature.
Specifically, on September 1, 2013 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) mandated ABS in conjunction with ESC under the provisions of the March 2007 Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 126. This document is primarily about ESC systems and was based on a 1999 study predicting the benefits of ESC; the requirement for new vehicles to have ABS was simply inserted into FMVSS No. 126, because it had not yet been mandated anywhere else.
At first this confused me greatly. How could it be that anti-lock brakes were only added as an afterthought for ESC? The safety advantages of ABS are virtually undisputed. A few minutes of thought however, and it became clear. Anti-lock brakes were clearly and easily identifiable as a huge safety feature. Automotive companies didn’t need to be prodded by governments to make it happen. Plus, disc brakes have less parts and cost less money to produce than drum brakes.
On the other hand, ESC did need to be mandated by governments, because the effectiveness of the system was unclear. In my previous article on ESC, it noted the original promise was that 10,000 lives would be saved, annually. While ESC systems do in fact save lives (please keep your ESC system turned ON), the number of lives actually saved is approximately 1,000 to 2,000. So, ESC doesn’t seem to have come close to its original goals, being only about 10-20% as effective as pledged by the NHTSA.
Note: My thanks to Jim Funke for providing some excellent data and constructive criticism of my ESC article (link below). It is rare these days to receive such well-thought, referenced, and valuable criticism. Thank you Jim.
The clear effectiveness of anti-lock brakes, and the less-than-clear effectiveness of electronic stability control, might explain why car manufacturers needed no encouragement to adopt the former, but had to be… let’s just say, “prodded-along” to adopt the latter in new vehicle production.
To take this back around to the start, was I correct about my friend owning a car built in the last 20 years without ABS? Most likely. Automobile manufacturers raced to incorporate the safety system after Lincoln announced in 1993 that it would be standard in all of its cars. By the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, anti-lock brakes were common place, even on vehicles that were considered to be budget or entry-level.
Was I correct about it being mandatory in the 1990s? No. Anti-lock braking systems were so common-place then that we hardly needed the 2013 law mandating its use.
That said, why would any manufacturer be selling a car to Mexico that doesn’t have this vital human safety system? Anti-lock braking systems are not just important for the safety of the passengers inside the vehicle, but for the safety of other vehicles and for pedestrians, too!
While researching this article, I additionally found news reports that over a dozen new cars in South Africa were being sold in 2017 without ABS systems. Hmmmm… perhaps car manufacturers are not as magnanimous to other countries as they are to the EU and the U.S.
How much money could car manufacturers be saving by not placing in the computer chip needed to run an ABS system? There just might be a good reason for these safety regulations after all.
Keep driving sober and with your ESC turned on my friends!
My thanks to Larry for his help with this article. Twice.