Electronic stability control 101

Consumer Reports News: April 15, 2010 02:20 PM

The recent Don’t Buy: Safety Risk designation from Consumer Reports on the 2010 Lexus GX and the “stop sale” directive from Toyota, has prompted many questions about the role of electronic stability control (ESC) in keeping a vehicle under control. Consumer Reports believes that ESC is the single most important safety advance since the development of the safety belt.

Here is a primer on this important technology and how it can help save lives. After reading this, we hope you’ll go out of your way to ensure that your next vehicle--either new or used--has this feature.


What is ESC?
Electronic stability control is a technology that helps a vehicle remain on its intended path by preventing it from sliding sideways in a turn, which can lead to rollovers. ESC intervenes by selectively applying brakes to nip a slide in the bud. It is especially helpful in slippery conditions and crash-avoidance situations when a car may otherwise partially rotate or spin out of control.

How does ESC prevent crashes?
In studies by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), ESC has been found to reduce the risk of fatal single-vehicle accidents by 51 percent. About half of the total number of fatal crashes on the road involves a single vehicle. These crashes typically involve a vehicle colliding with a tree or another obstacle once leaving the road. The National Highway Safety Traffic Administration (NHTSA) estimates a 34-percent decrease in cars and 59 percent decrease in SUV single-vehicle crashes. NHTSA also estimates that ESC can prevent 71 percent of car rollovers and 84 percent of SUV rollovers.

All those numbers translate to 5,300 to 9,600 lives potentially saved annually and would prevent between 156,000 and 238,000 injuries, based on a NHTSA estimate. 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 made a similar prediction that ESC would save more than 10,000 lives per year if all cars had it.

What vehicles have it?
In 2007, NHTSA mandated that all vehicles be equipped with ESC as a standard feature by the 2012 model year. Currently, for the 2010 model year, 88 percent of cars and 100 percent of SUVs have standard ESC. For pickups, it’s just 62 percent.

IIHS requires vehicles to have ESC as one of the criteria to earn the Institute’s highest Top Safety pick award for crash worthiness (how well a vehicle protects occupants in a crash). Consumer Reports requires that ESC must be readily available for a vehicle to be considered for its annual Top Picks list.

ESC is a great lifesaving technology, but whether or not your vehicle is equipped with ESC, there are a number of driver tips that can help you if you are ever faced with an emergency situation that could lead to a possible rollover.

  • A newer car is better. New vehicles are more likely to be equipped with ESC as well as curtain air bags. This is especially good advice for parents deciding which car to let their teenagers drive.
  • Wear your seat belt. Many deaths occur when an occupant is thrown from a vehicle or partially ejected, so your best defense is to buckle up.
  • Watch your speed. A higher speed can make a vehicle difficult to control and about 40 percent of fatal rollovers involve excessive speed.
  • Check your tires. Make sure your tires are in good shape and check for proper inflation once a month.
  • Watch the load. Overloading a vehicle--especially an SUV or pickup--decreases its stability. Stay within the load capacity of your vehicle and be especially careful not to overload the roof.

For more information on vehicle safety, see our guide. In addition, see our complete list of safety features on 2010 models.  

-- Liza Barth

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