Red Kia EV6

What is traction control?

Traction control is designed to maintain your car’s grip on the road by reducing wheelspin. But what is traction control and how does it work?

By Gavin Braithwaite-Smith

Published: 13 October 2023

Most modern cars have traction control but what exactly is it and how do you know if your car has it? Our guide has the answers.

What is traction control?

Traction control is a safety system that works in the background to help your car grip the road surface. If you own a relatively new car, it will almost certainly have traction control. It has been mandatory on all new cars since 2014 and was fitted to most new cars for many years before that. Modern traction control systems work in collaboration with a wealth of other car safety features to help you drive safely, especially in slippery conditions.

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What does traction control do and how does it work?

A traction control system uses sensors to identify any slip or loss of grip between your car’s tyres and road surface when you’re accelerating. Without getting overly technical, if the car’s electronic control unit (ECU) senses that a wheel is spinning faster than the speed of the car, it takes action.

To do this, it reduces the power that the engine sends to the wheel, allowing it to slow down and regain grip. This is done with no input from you, although the dashboard’s traction control indicator will light up when the system is working.

Aside from that, you won’t know that the traction control system is in operation, although you might notice a slight drop in power.

What are the benefits of traction control?

The main benefit of traction control is that it helps your car’s tyres to grip the road when you accelerate. Without it there’s the risk of wheelspin, which means the tyre is no longer gripping the road, which could lead to a loss of control or prevent you from pulling out of a junction as quickly and safely as possible.

Is traction control a safety feature in a car?

Yes, traction control is one of many driver assistance safety features found in most modern cars and many of these systems work together. While traction control helps stop wheelspin when you’re accelerating, it works with systems like electronic stability control (more on that in a bit) to help drivers maintain overall control of their cars, even in slippery conditions.

Do all cars have traction control?

The vast majority of used cars for sale have traction control. It was available for some cars as far back as the 1980s and has been fitted as standard to many cars since the late 1990s. Traction control became mandatory under European Union law on all new cars designed from 2011 and on all new cars sold from 2014.

The only exceptions are very low-volume cars made by independent manufacturers, such as Caterham Cars.

What’s the difference between traction control and electronic stability control?

You can think of electronic stability control (ESC) – also known as electronic stability programme (ESP) – as a more advanced version of traction control.

Whereas traction control only helps to reduce wheelspin under acceleration, ESP reduces the risk of a skid when a car slides across the surface of a road, such as if you enter a corner too quickly. ESC uses sensors and computer software to monitor the car’s movements – it can use the brakes on individual wheels and adjust engine power output to help you maintain or recover control if your car starts to skid.

ESP has been mandatory on all new cars sold in Europe since 2014, although many older cars also have it.

According to the EU, cars fitted with ESP are 22% less likely to be involved in a crash than those without. A study in Sweden showed that there were 32% fewer crashes in wet weather and 38% fewer in snowy conditions.

How do you know if traction control is working?

You’ll know if traction control is working because the traction control light on your dashboard will flash when it’s active, and you may feel a slight dip in engine power as it works to regain grip.

The most likely time traction control will kick in is when you press the accelerator pedal hard when the car is at a standstill, as you would to pull away quickly from traffic lights or out of a junction. This situation puts a lot of strain on the tyres, making them more likely to lose their grip on the road.

When should I use traction control?

Traction control is not a system you need to consciously decide to use: it’s a default safety feature, turned on whenever you start the car. You’re most likely to experience it working in poor weather, such as rain, ice or snow, or on slippery surfaces. Examples might include roads with loose chippings, a recent diesel or oil spill, or when you’re pulling away from a junction.

If you notice traction control kicking in more often than it used to, it could mean that your car’s tyres are heavily worn, so it’s worth checking them to make sure they’ve got enough tread.

You can find out more about how long car tyres last and how to look after them in our detailed guide.

Can you turn off traction control?

Driving without traction control switched on isn’t recommended. It’s a device designed to keep you and your passengers safe, so even if you think you’re a great driver, there’s always the risk that you’ll be caught out by the conditions or the road surface.

However, there may (very rarely) be times when traction control is more of a hindrance than a help. For example, if you find yourself on a road with a thin layer of ice, sand or wet mud, allowing a small amount of spin from the tyres could actually help them find grip, and make the difference between moving forward in a straight line or standing still with the traction control light flashing like a Christmas tree. With TCS on, the engine will keep reducing power until you have virtually no momentum.

To switch it off, look for a button marked TCS or TC, or an illustration of a car with two wiggly lines behind the wheels. You may have to press the button for a few seconds to switch it off, at which point a light may appear on the button or on the dashboard. On newer cars, you might have to scroll through different menus on the touchscreen infotainment system to find it.

What does the traction control light mean?

The traction control light will come on when you start the engine to show that the system is operational. If it doesn’t then switch off, it could mean that there’s a fault, so you should consult a garage. It’s worth noting that a permanently illuminated TCS light will result in an MOT test failure, so don’t leave it until the last minute to get it checked.

The light will flash when the system is active, so you might notice this when you’re driving on a muddy, wet, snowy or icy road. If the light continues to flash when you’re slowing down or the road is not slippery, there could be an issue with the system, so get it checked.

Should I drive with the traction control light on?

Although it’s probably okay to drive with the traction control light on, you should have the system checked by a professional as soon as possible. Take care when driving on slippery surfaces or in poor weather conditions, as you’re essentially driving with a safety net removed.

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