What Is Traction Control?

Ellie Dyer-Brown, 5 months ago

5 min read

  • Car ownership
  • Brakes
  • How it works
A car's traction control button.

WhoCanFixMyCar explains everything you need to know about traction control.

Modern cars are designed with numerous systems to keep you safe when road conditions are not optimal. Traction control is one of them. But what is it, and how does it work? This guide covers everything you need to know.


What is traction control?

What does traction control do?

When was traction control introduced?

What's the difference between traction control and stability control?

How to find the traction control button

How to turn traction control off

What does the traction control warning light indicate?

How to fix the traction control warning light

Common traction control problems

What is traction control?

Traction control is an electronic safety feature that runs in the background - you may not even notice it, but it’s doing an important job. Its purpose is to reduce or prevent wheel spin, allowing you to maintain control of your vehicle. Although it has been around for decades in different forms, it became compulsory in cars built from 2011 onwards.

What does traction control do? 

It uses the same sensors as the anti-lock braking system (ABS) to reduce wheel spin, which happens when a tyre is no longer gripping the road correctly.

A tyre that fails to grip the road could result in understeer (where the car doesn’t respond enough to your steering) or oversteer (where the vehicle is too responsive to your steering), putting you in a dangerous position.

Your car is less likely to have to activate traction control if your tyres are in good condition with plenty of tread. Likewise, using winter and summer tyres at the appropriate times of year ensures maximum grip.

How does traction control work?

Traction control runs in the background at all times unless you switch it off - we’ll discuss how and why you might do this later. It uses sensors to monitor the speed of the wheels in relation to each other. 

When one wheel spins considerably faster than the others, this is a sign it has lost traction (grip). Once the sensors detect wheelspin, the system either decreases the power to that wheel, applies a small amount of braking force, or both.

Close up of car's wheels spinning

Traction control works the same whether you have a front-, rear- or all-wheel drive vehicle; it doesn’t matter which wheels are driven.

How to tell when your traction control is working

When you switch your car on, the traction control warning light flashes briefly on the dashboard to signal the system is operational. If it flashes on again while you’re driving, traction control is active and working to prevent or reduce wheelspin.

Older cars may experience the effects of traction control as a slight hesitation or loss of power, similar to a misfire. Most modern systems are sophisticated enough that you can’t tell when the system intervenes.

When was traction control introduced?

The first rudimentary traction control systems were developed in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until the late 1980s that Mercedes-Benz and BMW introduced them to more passenger cars. It took a while for the price of this new technology to come down, making it more widely available - today, it's mandatory in new cars.

When to use traction control

As a driver, you don’t need to think about when to use traction control; it runs in the background and automatically activates when required. 

However, it’s most helpful when accelerating from a stand-still, slowed position, or to accelerate up a slippery hill. Traction control is mainly activated in sub-optimal conditions (for instance, on wet roads) when your tyres are more likely to lose grip.

A black car driving on a wet road.

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

Stability control is like an extension of traction control. It has more computer programming, electronic sensors and a more powerful processor. 

Modern stability control systems leverage all the hardware used by the ABS and traction control with the addition of a steering wheel position sensor, a yaw sensor and a three-axis accelerometer module to detect latitudinal and longitudinal acceleration.

After processing information from all these sensors, the system compares the vehicle’s motion with the driver’s intention. If the two don’t match, it applies individual wheel brakes and engine controls (if necessary) to amend the vehicle’s path.

Many modern vehicles have all three safety systems: ABS, traction control and stability control.

Should I ever switch traction control off?

Generally, it’s best to keep traction control switched on. It’s a life-saving safety feature that was introduced for a good reason.

That said, there are a few situations where switching it off may be beneficial - mainly if you’re stuck on snow, ice, sand or mud. Your car’s wheels need to spin freely to stand a chance of getting out, so ideally, you need complete control. Reducing power to a spinning wheel is likely to have the opposite effect.

A man in his car stuck in snow.

Once you’ve managed to get free, remember to switch traction control back on.

How to find the traction control button

The traction control button shows a picture of a car with squiggly lines underneath (representing a lack of control from wheelspin). This picture may have the word ‘OFF’ written beneath or a light to indicate whether the system is on or off.

A car's traction control button.

In most cars, you can locate the traction control button by looking to the left or right of your steering wheel. If you still can’t find it, consult your vehicle handbook.

How to turn traction control off

The traction control system automatically activates when you switch your car on. To turn it off, press and release the traction control button. You may have to hold it down for a few seconds - this varies between manufacturers, so it’s best to check your vehicle handbook for information specific to your car.

Turning TC off.

The dashboard cluster may show the traction control warning light with the word ‘OFF’ written beneath to remind you that the system is inactive.

What does the traction control warning light indicate?

The traction control warning light varies between different models - some lights depict a car with squiggly lines beneath, while others may display the letters ‘TCS’ or ‘TC. If the light stays on, it either indicates a problem with the system or that it has been switched off.

Find out what other car warning lights mean in this guide.

How to fix the traction control warning light

The first thing to do is check whether you have accidentally switched traction control off; the warning light may illuminate to remind you that the system is inactive. If you're certain the system is switched on, try restarting your car to see if this fixes the problem. 

traction control

It’s best to contact a mechanic if the light persists. A warning light that comes on and stays on often indicates a fault with the system, and because traction control is a crucial safety feature, it’s essential to get it checked out as soon as possible.

Common traction control problems

Likely causes of an illuminated traction control warning light include:

  • Malfunctioning or dirty sensors

  • Bad wiring

  • Faulty ABS

Most of the time, when there’s an issue with the traction control system, sensors are to blame. However, it’s worth remembering that warning lights can sometimes be misleading.

When my Suzuki Swift had a TCS warning light issue, it was fixed (after weeks of investigation by a Suzuki garage) by replacing the throttle body, which had been operating perfectly well without any other symptoms to suggest it was faulty.

Having problems with your car's traction control system? WhoCanFixMyCar can help you find a reliable local garage for a repair.

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