Once all vehicles are equipped with the stability systems, likely by 2012, they could save more than 10,000 lives, says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and eliminate more than 500,000 crashes annually, while saving billions of dollars in medical, repair and insurance costs.
Electronic stability control (ESC) helps drivers maintain control over a vehicle, especially on wet or icy roads, when they would otherwise veer off the pavement or out of their lane. On Wednesday, 40 vehicles crashed in wet conditions on Interstate 696 in Farmington Hills. Many of them lost control and skidded off the highway.
Stability control also prevents up to 80% of SUV rollovers. The SUVs’ higher center of gravity makes them more prone to tip over. The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute said ESC reduces the odds of fatal rollovers by 73% in SUVs and 40% in passenger cars, comparing it to a "guardian angel sitting on the shoulder of the driver."
Detroit automakers already offer stability control on many vehicles, particularly SUVs and other more rollover-prone vehicles.
Using computer sensors that automatically activate brakes to make course corrections, ESC works invisibly. It may not have the life-saving reputation of airbags, which deploy on impact, because ESC prevents the accident from happening, safety advocates and automotive industry officials say.
"Lots of drivers have no idea that it just saved their life or prevented a terrible accident," said Bill Kozrya, president and CEO of Troy-based Continental Automotive Systems, which makes more than 40% of all stability control systems.
"It has the potential to save more lives and prevent more property damage than anything in NHTSA’s history."
ESC reduces the risk of all single-vehicle crashes by more than 40% and fatal crashes by 56%, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Car crashes are the leading cause of death for people ages 3-34 and cost society more than $230 billion annually.
NHTSA will outline its new regulation after two years of testing on more than 50 vehicles. The agency will give automakers and others time to comment and seek changes. Congress gave NHTSA until 2009 to issue a final regulation.