ABS, Traction Control, and Stability Control: Electronics That Save Riders’ Lives Every Single Day

written by David Mixson

If you’ve followed me for long, you know I’m passionate about three pieces of electronics that can help keep riders from crashing: anti-lock braking system (ABS), Traction Control (TC), and Electronic Stability Control (ESC)—also referred to as Motorcycle Stability Control (MSC).

Let’s step through each of them, starting with ABS.

What Is ABS?

ABS is an electronic system that prevents either of your tires from locking up (skidding). When the ABS detects that a tire is about to lock up, it automatically reduces brake pressure to allow it to roll again.

The system then immediately reapplies the brake and goes through the process again. This happens multiple times a second in a pulsating fashion.

Why is ABS Important?

ABS is important because it prevents riders from skidding their tires—the most common trigger for a lowside or highside crash. ABS also helps most riders stop faster and more controllably. See the videos below.

ABS keeps you from skidding your rear tire when braking but doesn’t keep you from spinning your rear tire (over-accelerating) in a curve.

Good news ahead. There’s a system called Traction Control that will.

Let’s discuss that next.

What Is Traction Control?

Traction Control is an electronic system that prevents your rear tire from spinning out (losing rotational contact with the asphalt) when accelerating.

The system uses the ABS sensors to detect when the rear tire starts to rotate faster than the front tire. When this state is detected, the system reduces torque to the rear wheel by cutting engine power.

Why Is Traction Control Important?

Traction Control is important because it prevents your rear tire from spinning due to over-accelerating—which is also a common trigger for lowside and highside rider-induced crashes.

ABS prevents the rear tire from skidding due to over-braking. Traction Control prevents the rear tire from spinning due to over-accelerating.

Traction Control can also help you maintain control in low-speed situations like pulling out from a side street over a high lip of asphalt. Remember, your rear tire has less friction once it starts spinning and wants to slide around to the side of least resistance.

QUICK TIP: If a motorcycle has Traction Control, it also has ABS. But just because a motorcycle has ABS doesn’t mean it has Traction Control.

But wait. There’s something even better that’s available to help riders keep from crashing. It’s called Electronic Stability Control.

Let’s dive into that next.

What is ESC?

ESC combines ABS, Traction Control, integrated brakes, and lean angle sensors (among other parameters) into one system to help keep the motorcycle stable and upright.

When the system senses that an out-of-control state is imminent (slide-out, over-acceleration, rear tire lock-up, etc.), it applies one or both brakes (and/or reduces engine power) to keep the bike stable. 

Why Is ESC Important?

ESC combines the benefits of ABS and Traction Control and tosses in even more sensors to help the rider keep his motorcycle stable and rolling down the road. ESC prevents most lowside and highside crashes because it keeps the tires from skidding and the rear tire from spinning.

ESC is like Traction Control on steroids.

And like I mentioned above with Traction Control, if a motorcycle has Stability Control, it also has ABS and Traction Control. But just because a motorcycle has ABS or Traction Control doesn’t mean it has Stability Control.

I should probably warn you about something. Sometimes, things get a little confusing when talking about Traction Control and Stability Control because different folks (organizations) refer to the technology interchangeably. It’s not a big deal, but I wanted to mention it.

In a classic perspective, Traction Control keeps your rear tire from spinning due to over-accelerating. ESC adds the lean angle sensors, etc. However, even in the videos below, you’ll hear terms in a hybrid fashion.  

Traction Control for MotoGP

MotoGP racers have experimented with Traction Control systems with mixed results. Some like it, and some don’t. When asked what he thought about Traction Control, MotoGP champion Valentino Rossi said:

“Having the Traction Control system makes riding the motorcycle much easier and allows me to open the throttle more rapidly without launching me into a highside. Unfortunately, it takes away from the rider’s natural ability and feel for the motorcycle and makes it easier for people to compete with those who they couldn’t before having this rider aide. It is basically cheating.”1

At some point in the future, I predict we will all be riding motorcycles with Stability Control. When this happens, the naysayers—the same riders who don’t have a clue what triggers lowside and highside crashes—will still be moaning that they don’t need any electronic aids on their motorcycles.

In the end, it’s your choice. Choose wisely.

QUICK TIP: It’s important to note that ABS, Traction Control, and Stability Control can’t overcome the laws of physics. If you ride outside the limits of available friction, you’ll lose control. But most motorcycle crashes could have been avoided well within these limits. Remember what my motorcycle mentor used to tell me? TRUST YOUR TIRES.

ABS and ESC in Action

To get a feel for how these electronic systems help riders keep from crashing, I’ve included five explainer videos below. As you’ll notice, different manufacturers call them slightly different things.

I keep things simple and ONLY own motorcycles with Stability Control (call it whatever you’d like) because it includes ABS and Traction Control.

ABS and ESC: Illustration One

In the video below, KTM explains their Traction Control system.

ABS and ESC: Illustration Two

In the video below, a motorcycle with ABS is compared to one without. Notice which motorcycle has the crash arm extenders. That pretty much says it all.

ABS and ESC: Illustration Three

In the video below, Bosch explains how their Motorcycle Stability Control (MSC) system can help keep riders from crashing. Note that this video was made a decade ago. This technology is mature and readily available.

ABS and ESC: Illustration Four

The video below shows an animation of Traction Control.

ABS and ESC: Illustration Five

In the video below, KTM explains how their Motorcycle Stability Control (MSC) can keep riders from crashing. This technology already exists.

Final Thoughts

I’m still perplexed as to why Congress and the NHTSA haven’t Federally mandated ABS and ESC for all motorcycles sold in the U.S. for on-street use. The advantages of these systems far outweigh the disadvantages.

After looking at the data and studying the physics, I’ve drafted a letter to Congress and the NHTSA prodding them to act. You can read that below:

› Open Letter to Congress and NHTSA: A Case for Mandatory ABS (and ESC)

I understand that if riders demanded ABS and ESC, manufacturers would already be providing it. That’s not happening because proponents for ABS are using the wrong argument.

ABS proponents argue that ABS shortens their stopping distance, while anti-ABS proponents argue that top riders can stop more quickly with conventional brakes.

In this case, neither side wins because both sides are right. 

There’s no doubt in my mind that ABS and ESC on all motorcycles made for on-street use would significantly reduce the number of single-vehicle motorcycle crashes and fatalities—and the crash data supports this claim, as does the physics.

Final Appeal

Let me close with this thought. ABS is such a critical part of preventing riders from triggering a lowside or highside crash that I would still choose to only ride motorcycles equipped with ABS even if it took me a few feet LONGER to stop than it would with regular brakes.

Could somebody please show Congress that ABS saves lives NOT because of shorter stopping distances but because it prevents rider-induced crashes?

At some point, ABS and ESC will become mandatory. If I can make that day happen one day sooner, I’ve accomplished what I’ve set out to do.

I’m available to help on a consulting basis in any way I can.


* A portion of this article is an excerpt from my book Motorcycle Smarts.

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About the Author

David Mixson writes about the topics other motorcycle books gloss over. He worked as a NASA engineer for over thirty years and is the author of three books.

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