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Electronic Stability Control: Terrific but Learn How to Use It

On Thursday, September 14, 2006 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced a proposed rule that will require Electronic Stability Control on all passenger vehicles in the United States by 2012. This was immediately hailed in some quarters as, “the greatest safety advantage since seat belts.” That’s a nice thought, but it isn’t true. Electronic stability control won’t help in alcohol related accidents, and driver training is needed realize the potential safety improvement offered by stability control systems. Reliable statistics are difficult to obtain, but by most estimates are that nearly half of traffic fatalities are related to alcohol consumption. Electronic Stability Control will not prevent fatalities cause by drunk drivers. Seat belts will - up to a point. Even seat belts won’t help much in a 90mph head-on. Electronic Stability Control won’t increase driver awareness or judgment.

Many drivers are unable to take advantage of the potential improvement in safety offered today by ABS. (Anti-Lock Braking Systems). ABS should be a good thing. It brakes a car more efficiently than locked wheels would, decreasing stopping distances; and it maintains steering control. But there is evidence that ABS increases the severity of some crashes. When a typical driver sees a crash coming, the driver does two things: hits the brakes as hard as possible and throws the steering wheel hard-over to steer away from the anticipated crash.

The ABS does what it is designed to do. It maintains traction on all four wheels so braking and steering control is retained. The car may miss the crash, as the driver intended; but, with the steering wheel hard-over and traction maintained; the car may also go right off the road and hit some kind of immovable object. If that happens, a crash that might have been a glancing blow on another car, which would have some ability to crumple, has escalated into a head-on with something very hard, increasing the severity of the accident.

Electronic Stability Control systems are more complex than ABS. They anticipate and prevent a loss of control, including a rollover. Electronic Control System can help a driver maintain control of a car in some very bad situations: ice, debris on the road, one side having traction while the other does not, etc. While doing this, however, Electronic Control Systems can build a false sense of confidence, leading the driver to test the capabilities further and further, eventually creating a situation in which not even the Electronic Control System can maintain control. Then, when a car with an Electronic Control System finally does go out of control, it does it in a really big way, whether that point is reached because the driver is overconfident or for some other reason.

When safety belts were mandated there were some really irrational arguments against them such as, “You’re better off being thrown out of the car” or “You’ll get pinned in the car and not be able to get out.” Some of the arguments against stability control systems sound equally foolish. One of those arguments is that virtually all of the professional race cars in the world prefer cars without stability control systems. The counter to that is that professional race car drivers are a very small, extremely well-trained segment of the population, but this leads to a point.

Electronic stability controls have the potential to make a huge contribution to driving safety; but, to realize that potential drivers need to be trained so that they will not:

  1. Take their foot of the brakes because the pedal is vibrating when the only problem is that the stability control system has engaged.
  2. Make unnecessarily large steering inputs in an emergency.
  3. Unwittingly take a car past its limits.

Every driver should learn how to put on the brakes as hard as possible in an emergency and keep them on even if the brake pedal vibrates. Every driver should learn what a skid feels like and how to steer out of it. Every driver should learn how to steer around a potential collision without excessive steering inputs. These things should be experienced in a car, not in a classroom. Without that knowledge, electronic stability control is just an expensive, potentially dangerous piece of optional equipment, not the greatest safety advance since seat belts.