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There's a good chance you've seen a yellow or red traction control light blinking when trying to accelerate or slow down in less than gracious weather like rain or snow. Depending on the vehicle, this is likely telling you that traction control is actively attempting to work. It should flash quite briefly, we hope.
Traction control is a rather simple safety feature built into most cars. This system uses simple sensors to measure the spinning of your wheels, then controls the wheels and brakes using hydraulic solenoids to either or add power to a spinning wheel or other wheels.
In many cases, and especially off-road, the largest issue with trying to get your wheels going on snow or ice is that the driver and vehicle are initially applying too much power to a given wheel. Applying too much power makes the wheel spin instead of gaining good traction. Traction control just slows the wheel down to the point where traction is more likely. This is great while off-roading, because the vehicle might not initially know that one tire is actually off the ground. The system can slow that wheel down and add its power to another wheel that does have traction or contact.
Stability control is the next level of traction control. Stability control is a bit more applicable to more scenarios on the basis that it uses a lot more information to take a decision.
This system uses all the safety hardware in your car. This includes traction control for when a wheel is not spinning the way it should while anti lock brake systems apply brakes to individual wheels. You also have gas and brakes pedal sensors to know much pressure is being applied, or how fast the driver intends to go. Stability control employs a couple really important sensors to maintain stability and safety: You've got a yaw sensor that measures whether or not and how much a vehicle is rotating to attempt to detect an unintentional spin. How does the vehicle know it is unintentional? The sensors compare the direction of the vehicle with another important sensor in the steering wheel that tells the computer which direction you want to turn in.
To describe this on a less techie level, let's say you are trying to take a turn on snowy roads with your SUV. You start to turn, but the vehicle either starts to turn too hard because the wheels are moving too fast or the vehicle keeps going forward because it doesn't have the traction to make the turn. Either way, the vehicle is now headed in a different direction than the steering wheel is turned. Stability control will soon kick in because the yaw sensor is now informing the vehicle that the steering wheel and the vehicle are no longer aligned. Uh oh! Stability control than applies a combination of breaks and power to better balance the vehicle in the direction you intended to turn – or just keep it straight.
Note that currently, stability control is required in all cars as of 2012.
Are there scenarios where I can turn off stability control or traction control?
Assuming your vehicle was built after 2012, they are generally tied to one button that says “SC” or “TC” which can be turned off. The most common scenario where one might not want either one to work is off-roading – when you want to have more control over the direction of your vehicle, and you aren't exactly driving on publicly paved roads. Another scenario is when you are driving aggressively on the roads with a sports car.
Some sports cars have different levels of stability or traction control for the purpose of taking hard corners without slowing down or having the sensors correct you. Our best suggestion here is to only use these if you know how, and take it easy at first. Read the manual to understand what to expect so you don't find yourself in trouble taking a turn or accelerating in traffic.
In a bit of an off-road scenario, if you are driving on sand, dirt, or snow with pavement or a solid surface underneath, you might want to give your vehicle permission to apply normal power to these surfaces just to have your tires dig right through. If you find yourself driving on the beach, it might be worth turning traction control off to see how much your vehicle has to dig on to get a bit more power.
Why you shouldn't turn off stability control or traction control
If you don't know why you are turning off stability or traction control, you probably shouldn't touch the setting. These settings work a bit like a seatbelt, in that they are in place for your protection, and in the event that something unexpected happens. The vehicle can react to perilious situations much faster than your brain can process them – even if you get lucky, so we suggest you don't turn them off.
As someone who has driven through sand and both packed down and heavy snow, I've never turned traction control off on any vehicle.
Can stability control or traction control break?
Yes, they definitely can. Mine broke last year! The sensors that operate these systems can corrode and stop sending data, or just become inoperable. The good news: you'll get a warning light or message when your traction or stability control has stopped working, and all but the highest end of vehicles, these are generally inexpensive to replace.
Which is better than, stability control or traction control?
Stability control is better. If you are asking this because you feel like you have to choose between one and or the other, then choose stability control. Also realize again that any vehicle built after 2012 has at least one in stability control, and probably both. Every vehicle in the United States should have a combination of stability control, traction control, anti lock brakes, and airbags.
With that said, unless you are looking to buy a car older than 10 years old, you don't have to choose. We also don't think that the presence of stability control or traction control on your vehicle should determine which one you get unless you plan to drive in very poor weather often. We suggested you not turn traction control off because you probably don't need to. If you are concerned about stability or traction control, our simple answer is to find a car built after 2012.
How do I turn them off?
While on some levels, it's a simple matter of flicking a switch – in other vehicles the traction control settings are buried within the radio system. This is done on purpose, as the manufacturer wants to give you control of the vehicle, but they also rightfully believe that if they equip the vehicle with a proper safety system, you should just keep it on.
In most cases, you'll also learn that both traction and stability are under the same switch, so turning one off means turning the entire system off.
Can I do donuts or figure 8s with traction or stability control on?
Probably not. Having tried to do donuts in a large vehicle like a Suburban – yes, the vehicle will correct your course. Note that driving in circles with no traction is not how a vehicle is meant to be driven, and we don't condone the practice of doing donuts in the snow, especially with other cars around.
About The Author
I've spent many years selling cars, working with auto detailers, mechanics, dealership service teams, quoting and researching car insurance, modding my own cars, and much more.Read More About Charles Redding