You may not think much about what a traction control light is, or what it does, but if your traction control light goes on and stays on, you will have a problem to deal with. Your traction control system is a key component of your car’s drive and stability control systems, and it must be operational to keep your car running right, and also to keep you safe!
Join us for an insider’s view of what traction control light is, what it does, why the traction control warning light comes on, whether you can drive with it on, when you should switch off your traction control system, what are some common traction control system problems, how to fix your traction control system, what fixing it costs, and finally, whether it is worth fixing your traction control system.
What is the traction control system, and what does it do?
Your traction control system (TCS) is there to aid your car to maintain grip on the road in slick or slippery conditions. When one of your wheels loses its traction because of ice, snow, or rain, the traction control system goes into action, preventing your wheels from slipping or skidding, maintaining your course, and keeping you safe.
The TCS can work in a variety of ways, depending on the specific system that is used in your vehicle. It can:
- Apply the brakes to one or more wheels
- Reduce engine power through control of fuel, spark, throttle, or turbo boost
- Transfer power to the wheels that do have traction
Your traction control system usually shares sensors (such as the wheel speed sensors) and other components with your anti-lock brake system (ABS), working in conjunction with it to maintain your car’s stability. The traction control system is operated by a computer that can detect when and how much the wheels are slipping, and then decide what to do to stabilize your car.
Why is the traction control warning light on?
Let’s start out with a full explanation of every possible reason for the traction control warning light to come on. It can mean either that your traction control system is operating normally, or there is a malfunction.
First, here are some situations when it is normal to see your traction control warning light come on:
- When you first start your car, and all of your dashboard warning lights come on as a test, so you can be sure that they are working properly.
- When your wheels slip, and your traction control system is working to keep your car stable – the worse the road conditions, the more that the light will come on.
- You have switched off the traction control because the conditions suggest it (see below).
But there can be many not-so-good reasons for your traction control warning light to come on, especially if it stays on. These indicate that there is a problem with your traction control system.
Can you drive with the traction control warning light on?
It’s not a good idea, but it can be done. The first thing to do, if your traction control warning light comes on while you are driving, is to find a safe spot to pull over. Turn your vehicle off, then restart it. If the traction control warning light stays off, there was a momentary glitch in the system, and you should be fine to continue.
But if the light comes back on and stays on, you should call your mechanic right away and schedule a service appointment. Until you have it fixed, drive with care, avoiding hard acceleration and braking, as well as sudden changes of direction that could upset your car’s balance, especially if there’s rainy or snowy weather around. Without a properly operating traction control system, you must now transfer those functions to your own brain!
When should you switch off your traction control?
There are many vehicles equipped with TCS that allow you to switch it off. You will see a button that is labelled either “TCS Off “or “ESC off.” This switches off the TCS until you push the button again, or you restart the vehicle. Why would you want to switch off your traction control system?
You are starting in snow
If your traction control system intervenes when every wheel is on a slippery surface, none of your wheels will be allowed to turn! Shutting off the system allows your wheels to spin enough to generate some grip and get your car moving.
You are stuck in mud or snow
Similar to starting in snow, you need to be able to have your wheels spin if you are stuck. This will let you “rock” your car back and forth, eventually creating enough momentum to free you from the mud or snow.
You have tire chains on
If you are using chains when the conditions are rainy or snowy, the chains will work better if there is some wheelspin permitted as they dig in and create traction for your car.
At all other times, you are much better off leaving your traction control system on.
What are some common problems with traction control?
There are several issues that can cause problems with your traction control system. Here’s the list:
If your traction control system switch is faulty, it may keep the TCS off when you want it to be on.
Your traction control system depends on correct information about each wheel’s traction situation. This is provided by the sensors on each wheel, which monitor their speed and rate of slippage, if any. If a sensor wears out, is damaged, or its wires become broken or disconnected, the sensor will not be able to transmit this information to the TCS computer.
Bad TCM computer
If the computer that is charged with analyzing the input from the wheel sensors fails, the traction control system will be unable to operate.
Fault in the ABS
Your traction control system is closely integrated with your anti-lock braking system, and shares many components. If there is a sensor or computer malfunction in your ABS, it is very likely that the fault will show up in your TCS.
How do you fix a bad traction control system?
The key to fixing a bad traction control system is to properly diagnose the system, and then identify the precise cause of the problem. Once this has been achieved, the appropriate parts can be repaired or replaced, returning your traction control system to proper operation. This can involve new sensors, wiring, a switch, or even a TCS/ABS computer.
To be sure that the problem with your traction control system is limited to the electronic components, your mechanic should also check out the mechanical parts that are related to your traction control system. There are many mechanical issues that can produce wheel slip, from engine power delivery issues to transmission shifting to bad axles, driveshafts, or CV joints. These things should be ruled in or out, and then repaired as necessary.
What does it cost to repair your traction control system?
As with most types of car repairs, prices can vary widely, depending on who is doing the job, the degree of difficulty, and the cost of the parts. Because the traction control system involves the actions of both electronic and mechanical parts, the repairs involved could be limited to a single part or might require replacement and/or repairs to several components.
Depending on the year, make, and model of your car, repairing the traction control system could run anywhere from a hundred dollars to well over a thousand dollars. The best course of action is to call a well-rated repair shop and get a firm diagnosis of your traction control system problem. Then you will have a better idea of what repairs will cost.
Is It Worth Repairing Your Traction Control Warning Light?
If you do need your traction control system repaired, and your car is otherwise in good running condition, it is definitely worth fixing. This is because you can’t drive your car safely if the wheels are prone to slipping when the roads get slippery. And if the ABS is also affected, your anti-lock brakes will no longer work. Driving in wet or snowy weather has just become extremely hazardous.
If you live in a dry climate, where precipitation of any kind is not common, you may be able to get away without an operating TCS, especially if you are careful to drive very gently, and not spin the wheels or upset the balance of your car.
But if you do live where the roads get wet, your car is very old, it has a lot of miles on it, is not particularly reliable, and the cost of fixing your traction control system is high, you have a decision to make. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- What is your car worth?
- How many miles are on it?
- Does your car have any other chronic issues that could result in a big repair soon?
- Will the brakes or tires need replacement soon?
- Is it time to cut your losses and get rid of your car now?
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