WASHINGTON—A technology hailed as the most important highway-safety invention since the seat belt is gaining ground in the U.S. vehicle fleet—but slowly.
It's called electronic stability control, and it prevents vehicles from skidding out of control. If everyone had it, it would "save up to 10,600 lives annually," Nicole Nason, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told a congressional subcommittee last week
Her agency expects to propose a regulation by summer's end that would make ESC standard on all new cars sold in the United States and that could take effect in as little as three years after a comment period. As with air bags, however, it would be many more before nearly all vehicles on the road had ESC.
Electronic stability control is standard or available as an option in two-thirds of SUVs and light trucks, both of which have a relatively high potential to skid or roll over. It's standard or optional on a quarter of new passenger cars, mostly at the high end. (See the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Web page http://safercar.gov/pages/ESC-EquippedVehicles-2006.html for model-by-model details.)
The magic of ESC is that it senses when a car isn't moving in the direction that its driver is steering and applies brakes to whichever wheel or wheels will keep the car from skidding. The same system—reacting faster than a driver could—applies the brakes if a turn is too sharp.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a Virginia nonprofit organization funded by insurers, ESC cuts single-vehicle fatalities by 56 percent and multiple-vehicle wreck fatalities by 32 percent. The gains are bigger for single-vehicle crashes because skidding is a bigger factor in those.
Most of the gain comes from reducing rollovers, an especially deadly type of crash. ESC cuts them by 80 percent in SUVs and 77 percent in other cars, the insurance group reported in June. Its findings were based on the government's fatal accidents database and police highway-fatality reports from 2001 through 2004.
"In terms of safety benefits, only seat belts and air bags" are in a league with ESC, insurance institute spokesman Russ Rader said. One big reason, he said, is that unlike gains from seat belts, which vehicle occupants must buckle, ESC "doesn't require the driver to do anything except to continue to steer."
It'll be many years before every car on the road has ESC because it can't be retrofitted into cars that were sold without it. It's standard on 40 percent of U.S. 2006 model vehicles; another 15 percent offer it as an option.
Every 2006 Audi, BMW, Infiniti, Mercedes and Porsche comes with ESC, which Mercedes introduced in 1995. Toyota offers it as a $650 option on 2006 Camrys and Corollas. Beginning next year, it'll be standard in every new Volvo. At the other extreme, ESC is available, either standard or as an option, on only a quarter of 2006 Chevrolets, Dodges and Fords, mainly high-end models and SUVs.
When it's offered as an option, few buyers bite even though it costs just $300 to $800, said Jonathan Linkov, the managing editor of Consumer Reports' autos section. "Like many safety features it's something you hopefully don't experience ever, which makes it harder to sell than a sunroof," he said.
Consumer Reports recommends cars with ESC and suggests that buyers ask dealers whether any cars they're interested in include it. The technology goes by different names; Nissan, for example, calls it Dynamic Stability Control, and Saturn calls it Stabilitrak.
One strategy that some automakers use to sell ESC is to include it in a package of options.
For example, the Nissan Maxima includes ESC for just $600, but to get it you also must buy a sunroof for $900 and a "Driver Preferred Package," which includes a heated steering wheel and Bluetooth phone, for $3,650. Only 7 percent of 2006 Maxima buyers go for that deal, according to Nissan spokesman Tony Pearson.
He said options sold as packages tended to be those that, like ESC, must be built into a car at the factory rather than added on by a dealer. "Its easier to bundle these things up in one package instead of offering an a la carte type of menu," he said.
"You shouldn't have to choose safety items from an options list," countered Rader, whose insurance-company sponsors gain when drivers buy better accident protection.
A list of cars that have electronic stability control is at http://safercar.gov/pages/ESC-EquippedVehicles-2006.html
(McClatchy researcher Tish Wells contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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