Electronic stability control (ESC) would make its way into all new passenger vehicles under a proposed federal rule that would phase in beginning with 2009 models. The Institute backs the plan but urges faster adoption of this technology, estimating that it could prevent as many as 10,000 fatal crashes each year.
ESC helps drivers control their vehicles during high-speed maneuvers like entering a curve too fast or swerving to avoid a deer on a slippery highway. Even before a driver would know there's a problem, ESC sensors can tell when a vehicle strays from the intended line of travel or begins to spin out. Then ESC automatically brakes individual wheels and sometimes reduces throttle to keep the vehicle under control and moving in the intended direction.
Under the rule proposed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), just 30 percent of 2009 models would have to have ESC. The technology wouldn't be required on all vehicles until 2012.
"That's too long to wait," says Institute president Adrian Lund, pointing to a Highway Loss Data Institute estimate that more than half of all 2006 models have standard or optional ESC. It will be standard on an estimated 48 percent of all 2007s.
"NHTSA administrator Nicole Nason says ESC is the greatest lifesaving breakthrough since safety belts, and we agree," Lund says. The agency estimates that ESC would save between 5,300 and 10,300 lives each year and prevent 168,000 to 252,000 injuries if it were on all passenger vehicles.
"So why not make sure this technology gets onto cars, trucks, and SUVs as fast as possible?" Lund adds.
Automakers have been voluntarily putting ESC on their vehicles at a steady rate. The percentage with this technology has increased tenfold since the 1998 model year. This is important because ESC reduces the risk of single-vehicle crashes by about 40 percent. The effect is greater for fatal single-vehicle crashes, which are reduced by more than half. ESC lowers fatal multiple-vehicle crash risk by 32 percent (see "ESC reduces multiple-vehicle crashes as well as single-vehicle ones," June 13, 2006, and "ESC reduces deaths, especially in single-vehicle crashes," Jan. 3, 2005).
SUVs benefit most because their high centers of gravity make them more likely than cars to roll over. ESC decreases the risk of fatal single-vehicle rollover crashes of SUVs by 80 percent.
Auto manufacturers agree that ESC should be standard safety equipment but tell NHTSA they need longer to phase in the dashboard indicator lights that would be required. The two biggest industry groups, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, say many automakers will have to redesign their dashboards to accommodate the lights indicating when ESC malfunctions or is switched off. These trade groups want to delay the requirements for the indicator lights until the 2012 model year but otherwise favor NHTSA's proposed phase-in schedule for ESC.
Under the proposed rule, switches would be required so drivers could disable ESC in rare situations when it might hinder forward movement—when driving in deep snow, for example. The Institute and automakers support the switch and agree with NHTSA that the system should default to "on" each time a vehicle is started.
Consumers Union recommends 2010 instead of 2012 for 100 percent implementation of ESC and asks NHTSA to require automakers to call their systems ESC instead of the confusing mix of trade names now used to market this technology. Then consumers could more easily identify vehicles with ESC.
"This is the most important vehicle safety technology to come along in a long time," Lund says. "ESC can prevent some serious crashes from ever happening at all. So the sooner we get ESC on every vehicle in the fleet the better."