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If you’ve been driving for more than a few years — to put it gently — then you may remember having to rhythmically pump your brake pedal when you needed to do a panic stop. That’s because anti-lock braking systems had not been invented yet, and braking too hard would cause your wheels to lock up, throw you into a skid, and make it almost impossible to steer out.

Don’t believe us? Watch a few car chase scenes from the 1970s and ’80s, and you’ll see what we mean.

Yes, those were dark and scary times before anti-lock brakes were invented. Today, the staccato report of the ABS safety feature firing under your feet can be a lifesaver during panic brake maneuvers and bad weather.

But, when your car’s ABS light comes on, it may mean danger for any hard braking. Here are a few things that could cause your ABS light to come on.

What Does the ABS Warning Light Mean?

If you notice your anti-lock brake system light coming on when you start the car, that’s not a bad sign. A lot of modern cars do a bulb check, during which you’ll notice all sorts of scary things light up, like the check engine light, the low fuel light, and so on.

It’s when the light stays on that you might have an issue. But, first things first: It may not be an actual disaster.

First, check your brake fluid levels. Brake fluid is one of the key components in keeping the whole braking system operating properly, and when you have low brake fluid, you also have low brake fluid pressure. This can alert your car’s computer that something has gone awry.

Luckily, the fix for this is as simple as popping the hood, locating the brake fluid reservoir, and adding fluid.

That being said, if it starts happening frequently, you might want to inspect the brake lines for leakage.

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The ABS Light Is On, and It’s Not Brake Fluid — Now What?

Continue to avoid panicking. Unlike other warning lights, this won’t permanently ruin any of your internal components if you keep driving. It’ll make heavy braking even harder, and it’s not especially safe, but you don’t have to pull off the road immediately or risk your car blowing up.

The next thing to check is the wheel speed sensors. These sensors track how fast each wheel is spinning. If one is spinning faster than the others, you’re skidding. If one is moving slower than the others, the ABS system will increase the brake fluid pressure to get things moving along. Smooth, steady, and forward are the goals of your stability control systems, and these sensors help them do their jobs.

The wheel speed sensors may be broken, or they may just be covered in dirt and road goo that’s preventing them from getting an accurate reading. The good news is that these can be replaced at home, or by investing a few hundred dollars at your favorite repair shop.

When Is the ABS Light a Big Deal?

There are occasional situations in which it will take a little more than a quick fix to get the ABS light to turn off.

The first is a worn-out hydraulic pump or hydraulic valve. This is a pretty normal wear-and-tear type of issue that occurs after a significant amount of driving. Essentially, this is partly responsible for increasing brake fluid pressure to the wheels as needed to keep the car from skidding.

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Unfortunately, it usually means a trip to the repair shop and dishing out a couple thousand dollars. The positive side of this is that you’ll be able to drive your car safely and efficiently for a long time to come after it’s replaced.

The other bad news option? A bad ABS control module. This is the computer center in your car where all the ABS sensors send their various signals. This is not a common issue, but it is certainly possible. The control module is very sensitive to corrosion, so it’s best to have this addressed right away.

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An ABS light can mean a lot of different things. Some drivers have even reported that the cause of their light staying on was just a blown fuse. There are a few things you can self-check, like the brake fluid. It’s never a bad idea to consult the owner’s manual, either.

However, you may find yourself wanting to visit an auto repair shop to see if there’s an issue with the car’s computer. A repair shop has the code reader tools that can read the vehicle’s trouble codes directly from the computer, which results in a lot less poking around and asking, “Is this it?”

Unless that’s your favorite way to spend a weekend. We’re certainly not here to judge. Just put it all back together again when you’re done.

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