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Electronic stability control to be standard by 2012

Government would have safety feature on all light-passenger vehicles

Last reviewed: February 2011

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is requiring electronic stability control systems to be phased in as standard equipment on all passenger vehicles under 10,000 pounds starting with the 2009 model year and to have the safety feature available on all such vehicles by the 2012 model year. But by the 2010 model year ESC was standard on 88 percent of cars (100 percent for SUVs); optional on 7 percent and not available on only 5 percent.

"Electronic stability control is the single most important advance in auto safety since the development of the seatbelt," said David Champion, Senior Director of Automotive Testing for Consumer Reports, published by Consumers Union.

An expected benefit of this rule is that ABS and traction control will become a standard feature across all segments, including low-cost models that traditionally have been difficult to purchase with ABS.

Benefits of ESC

Electronic stability control helps a driver keep the vehicle in control and on its intended path during a turn, to avoid sliding or skidding. It's especially helpful in slippery conditions and accident-avoidance situations. In this way, ESC can help a driver avoid an accident altogether, reducing fatalities as well as injuries and injury severity. Combined with air bags, this technology makes today's cars even safer and should be sought by new-car buyers, as CR has recommended for years.

The government agency estimates that ESC will save between 5,300 and 9,600 lives annually and prevent between 168,000 and 238,000 injuries. Specifically, NHTSA forecasts that ESC has the potential to prevent between 4,200 and 5,500 deaths that occur each year as a result of rollover crashes. A June 2006 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety predicted that ESC would save more than 10,000 lives per year if all cars had it.

ESC provides an even greater safety benefit for SUVs. That is because it can prevent a vehicle from getting into a situation where it could roll over, a particularly lethal type of crash seen more frequently with tall vehicles. According to the IIHS study, ESC reduces the risk of fatal single-vehicle SUV rollovers by 80 percent.

How it works

Electronic stability control uses a computer linked to a series of sensors—detecting wheel speed, steering angle, and sideways motion. If the car starts to drift, the stability-control system momentarily brakes one or more wheels and, depending on the system, reduces engine power to keep the car on course. ESC can't overcome the laws of physics, however, so drivers still need to be careful in turns, especially in slippery conditions.