If your car or light truck is relatively new—say, 10 years old or less—it may be equipped with traction control or its more sophisticated cousin, electronic stability control (ESC). Both of these systems are designed to help you maintain control of your vehicle in dangerous circumstances.

Certainly, automotive technology can help save lives, but there are limits to its capacity to protect you and your passengers. Knowing how systems like ESC work will help you understand how they contribute to improved automotive safety, and why you should rely on smart behaviour behind the wheel, even if your vehicle has the latest safety technology.

Integrated with anti-lock brakes (ABS), traction control was introduced on production vehicles decades ago and is a precursor to ESC. ABS senses wheel spin on individual wheels and reduces throttle and/or applies brakes to individual wheels to better maintain traction at all four wheels.

The term “traction control” is sometimes used interchangeably with “electronic stability control” (ESC), but the latter is a more sophisticated system and is now more common. Premium automakers have offered the technology since the 1990s, and GM’s StabiliTrak and Ford’s AdvanceTrac systems are examples of early ESC systems from mainstream domestic automakers. Starting with the 2012 model, all new cars and light trucks are required to include ESC as standard safety equipment.

The big difference between ESC and traction control is that ESC is designed to aid in steering. Like traction control, ESC uses wheel speed sensors to indicate loss of traction and can limit throttle and/or apply brakes to prevent the driver from losing control of the vehicle. ESC takes it a step further by measuring the angle of the steering wheel and responding with brake inputs accordingly to help the vehicle stay on the driver’s intended path.

ESC can be effective, for example, if you swerve at the last minute to avoid a squirrel darting across a warm, dry street. Without touching the brake pedal, ESC uses the braking system to keep your car from plowing out or spinning out. Add standing water—or, worse yet, icy pavement—and the system’s ability to protect you is reduced. ESC is not magic; it relies on the traction of the tires to maintain control. If no traction is available due to conditions like icy roads, ESC can do little to help you.

To get the most out of your vehicle’s safety system, drive smart. Slow down and leave plenty of space. Drop the distractions and pay attention to the road. Even in the newest car with the most advanced safety features, take extra precautions in harsh weather. Modern safety systems are most effective in the hands of wise and careful drivers.

For more information, you can contact your local NAPA AUTOPRO specialist.