What Traction Control Is and How to Turn It Off

What Traction Control Is and How to Turn It Off

Last Updated February 6, 2020 | Meghan Drummond

Traction control is an automatic driver assist feature designed to prevent traction loss or skidding.

"Could prevent nearly one-third of fatal accidents"

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s 2004 study indicated that traction control could prevent nearly one-third of fatal accidents. The numbers are even greater for SUVs, which have a higher center of gravity and are more likely to lose traction.

Traction control has been required on all light passenger vehicles since 2012. Many companies have different names for it. Ford calls their system AdvanceTrac, while Jeep calls theirs Electronic Stability Control, for example.

Though traction control is a valuable safety feature, there are times when you may need to disable it. Understanding how traction control works, and when it doesn’t, can help you determine when to turn it on or off.

How Traction Control Works

Illustration shows car without traction control fishtailing off road
Traction Control vs No Traction Control

Despite naming differences between auto companies, all traction control systems operate very similarly.

Traction control’s job is to detect wheel slippage. This can happen because of loose gravel or on a rainy stretch of road. When traction control detects a difference between a vehicle’s speed and wheel speed, it fixes the issue.

Traction control can either apply brake pressure or reduce power to the engine. Reduced engine power is achieved either through spark, fuel, or throttle restriction. By reducing the difference between wheel and vehicle speed, traction control gives the driver time to react.

Traction Control vs ABS

Many people compare anti-lock brakes and traction control. This is an apt comparison. Traction control and ABS are two sides of the same coin. Traction control allows you to accelerate and drive in the same conditions ABS is designed to help you brake in. From rainy days to slick roads, these two systems have helped many drivers maintain control even when they’ve lost traction.

Traction control and ABS also use the same equipment. The ABS module often incorporates the traction control computer. When the traction control system is used, the ABS system’s ECU brakes the wheels.

In many ways, ABS and traction control could be described as two components of one system. A mechanical failure that affects your ABS will likely affect your traction control. This is why the warning lights for the two systems often show up together.

When to Turn Off Traction Control

Traction control is a helpful safety net for standard vehicle use. Non-standard vehicle use is a different story. Drag racers, off-roaders, and drifters all tend to have issues with traction control. Because wheel slippage is an important part of these activities, traction control can be activated too frequently. Traction control aggressively suppressing the throttle can also cause performance issues.

Drivers who enjoy these activities benefit from disabling traction control, but there are situations where everyone can benefit from disabling it.

In many weather situations, traction control prevents drivers from doing what they need to. In deep snow or on dirt roads, some wheel slippage is necessary. Rocking out of a snowdrift or mud requires wheel slippage, and you don’t want to suddenly have your throttle suppressed. Having your brakes applied or losing power in these situations can be dangerous or at least annoying.

How to Turn Off Traction Control

Traction control is beneficial most of the time. But if you’re about to be in a situation where it won’t be, then you should disable it.

In most cars, there will be a toggle switch. In the Mustang, this switch is located just behind your shifter. This is a common location, though if yours is not located there, try by your steering wheel.

Thankfully, engaging and disengaging the traction control is easy. Doing it frequently shouldn’t increase the likelihood of a mechanical issue. This is just one of the ways drivers can easily adjust their driving experience.

A yellow circle shows where the traction control toggle is on a Mustang
Traction Control Switch On a Mustang

What About Feathering?

Before traction control was widespread, drivers feathered their gas and brake pedal. Feathering is simply the process of lightly pressing and releasing pedals to create precise control.

Feathering works well, and creates a feeling of control. Unfortunately, feelings can be deceptive. It’s unlikely that many drivers are capable of responding to changing road conditions more quickly than a robot. Especially a robot specifically designed to prevent slipping wheels.

Traction control is most helpful in situations where the driver is unaware of the risk of traction loss. In these situations, a driver might not even realize that traction control was activated.

Most drivers will be cautious when it’s snowing but a patch of ice can surprise anyone. During active snowfall, feathering is most likely adequate. The feeling of control can create confidence, and having to make minute adjustments helps drivers maintain focus. One instance where traction control would be useful is when surprised by a patch of ice. Most drivers won’t be able to adjust for feathering when they’ve already lost traction.

Above the odometer a car with squiggly lines represents traction control
The Traction Control Light Is On

What if I Drive an AWD/4WD Vehicle?

Many people who have AWD or 4WD think traction control is unnecessary. However, this is far from the case. While an all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive system can help you get moving in inclement weather, neither system helps at all with stopping. In other words, AWD or 4WD increases your ability to go without increasing your ability to stop.This can create a sense of false confidence and lead to accidents.

Traction control pairs well with an AWD or 4WD system since it addresses wheel-slip, a common precursor to losing control in bad weather. Traction control only makes your AWD or 4WD system safer, and these two systems aren’t redundant.

Common Traction Control Problems

Since ABS and traction control use the same wheel sensors, problems that affect one system will most likely affect the other. Most of these problems are related to the wheel sensors. Wheel sensors suffer a lot of wear and tear related to their location. If you frequently drive through loose gravel or other debris-littered situations, they’re more likely to have issues.

When there’s a problem with your traction control, a warning light will appear on the dash.

If you notice this light, you should try to disengage and re-engage the traction control. If that has no effect, then cleaning your wheel sensors is another low-tech easy fix you can do at home. For most traction control and ABS issues, cleaning off the wheel sensors periodically is all that’s needed to avoid major system problems.

If this doesn’t fix the issue, then you may need to see a mechanic. The good news is you can still safely drive a car that’s having issues with its traction control system. In the meantime, feathering your gas and brake is still a good way of gaining control.

What Traction Control Is and How to Turn It Off

On slippery roads, traction control can help you avoid a nasty accident. But if you’re interested in drag racing, drifting, or off-roading, you may need to disable traction control. Understanding how traction control works can help you determine when you should and shouldn’t have it on.

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