Study: Stability technology could prevent 10,000 crash deaths a year
Insurance group's report finds that stability systems could prevent one third of fatal wrecks if standardized.
June 13, 2006; Posted: 7:36 a.m. EDT (1136 GMT)
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - A new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety indicates that crash deaths on American roads could be reduced by one third if all vehicles were equipped with the Electronic Stability Control.
About 34,000 people are killed in auto crashes in the United States each year.
A comparison of rates of fatal crashes for vehicles that were identical except for the inclusion of electronic stability control, the Institute said, reveals that the vehicles with Electronic Stability Control (ESC) were 43 percent less likely to be involved in a fatal crash.
If all vehicles were equipped with the technology, instead of the current 25 percent, the Institute estimates that as many as 10,000 fatal accidents could be prevented each year.
The study bolsters earlier research by the Institute, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and others supporting the effectiveness of ESC.
ESC relies on two other underlying technologies: anti-lock brakes and electronic traction control. Anti-lock brakes use sensors to detect when a car's wheels are about to lose traction under hard braking. The system then pumps the brakes at an extremely rapid rate, allowing the wheels to regain traction so that the car stays in control and can be steered effectively.
Electronic traction control uses similar sensors to detect when a car's wheels are spinning out of control under hard acceleration. The system automatically reduces power from the engine until the wheels regain traction.
ESC uses a variety of sensors to detect when a car is skidding, or is about to skid, because of hard cornering and slippery road conditions. The system will rapidly apply the brakes for fractions of a second at individual wheels and simultaneously reduce engine speed to keep the vehicle under control. Such systems can often react even before the driver is aware that there is a problem.
"The findings indicate that ESC should be standard on all vehicles," Susan Ferguson, the Institute's senior vice president for research, said in an announcement. "Very few safety technologies show this kind of effect in reducing crash deaths."
The Insurance Institute released a study showing similar results last year, but now that more vehicles on the road have ESC, researchers were able to include more vehicles in the study to provide more detailed results.
ESC tends to prevent more single-vehicle crashes, which usually involve a vehicle running off the road, the study found, but it also helps prevent the most serious, high-speed multi-vehicle crashes. The technology had little effect on less serious "fender bender" crashes, presumably because those types of crashes usually do not involve loss of vehicle control.
ESC is currently standard on 40 percent of 2006 passenger vehicle models and is offered as an option on another 15 percent. As a stand-alone option, ESC costs $300 to $800, according to the Institute. On some vehicles, however, it is only available as part of a more expensive option package.
Unlike other technologies, such as airbags and anti-lock brakes, car companies have a variety of different names for ESC. For example, General Motors calls their system StabiliTrak on SUVs and trucks and Active Handling on its cars. Chrysler calls their system Electronic Stability Program (ESP). Ford calls its ESC system AdvanceTrac.
Full list of trademarked names for ESC
When ESC is offered as an separate option, car buyers usually don't ask for it, according to the Institute.
A big part of the problem is that, since many customers are unaware of the technology or don't fully understand it, it's easier for car dealers to tell consumers they don't need it, suggested David Champion, head of auto testing for Consumer Reports.
Some car companies have already said they will make the technology standard on all their vehicles.
General Motors announced in January that all of its vehicles will have ESC by 2010. A spokesman for Ford Motor Co. said that company is "moving toward standardization" of ESC. Toyota currently has the technology as standard equipment on all of its SUVs and all models in its Lexus luxury vehicle line. Chrysler will have the technology as standard equipment on all of its SUVs, including Chrysler Jeep and Dodge vehicles, by the end of 2006, a Chrysler spokesman said.
A spokesman for Hyundai said that the company supports a government mandate that would require the technology on all vehicles. Hyundai currently has the technology as standard equipment on most of its vehicles.
In a few months, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is expected to announce a proposed emergency handling test that will essentially require ESC on all vehicles, NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson said. Few vehicles would be able to pass the test without assistance from ESC, Tyson said.
Past NHTSA studies have also shown ESC to be highly effective in preventing serious real-world crashes, especially in SUVs.
Full list of trademarked names for ESC
FORTUNE: Leave the driving to the car