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How electronic stability control is saving lives on the road

Nick DiUlio

In 2010, Kevin Lynch was saved from a life-threatening highway accident — and he has electronic stability control to thank.

It was late afternoon. Lynch, an associate professor of insurance at The American University in Pennsylvania, was driving 75 miles per hour along Interstate 295 near Richmond, Virginia. Suddenly, he heard a loud noise from under his car. And his steering felt strange. So he slowed down and pulled his 2009 Hyundai Sonata onto the shoulder.

When he got out of his car, he discovered that two of his tires had golf-ball-size holes in them. Apparently, he’d hit a pothole. If it weren’t for his car’s electronic stability control, he would have veered off the road and into a concrete median at almost 80 mph.

“My car didn’t move an inch to the right or the left while I was driving,” Lynch recalls. “Even when the highway patrolman showed up, he couldn’t believe I hadn’t crashed the car. I’ll tell you what, I’ll never buy another car without electronic stability control, that’s for sure.”

And Lynch isn’t the only one. According to a recent three-year study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), electronic stability control (ESC) is saving an increasing number of lives. NHTSA estimates that from 2008 through 2010, ESC saved 2,202 lives – 634 in 2008, 705 in 2009 and 863 in 2010.

“These numbers send a clear message about this technology’s life-saving potential,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says in a statement. “As more vehicles on the road are equipped with ESC in the coming years, we know the technology will save even more lives.”

In addition to the general good news of these findings, the study also underscores the importance of new auto manufacturing mandates that took effect in 2007. That’s the year new federal safety regulations required that ESC be required on all light-duty and passenger vehicles. According to NHTSA, the regulation was phased in between 2008 and 2010 and applied to all new vehicles manufactured on or after Sept. 1, 2011.

And while electronic stability control already has saved thousands of lives, analysts are curious to know just how many more will be saved in the future. Also, they wonder what it might mean for car insurance premiums in the long run.

The 411 on ESC

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), ESC is a vehicle control system made up of sensors and a microcomputer that continuously monitors how well a vehicle is responding to a driver’s steering. It also selectively applies the brakes and regulates engine power to prevent crashes.

The technology primarily helps prevent the sideways skidding and loss of control that can lead to rollovers. In addition, it can help drivers maintain control during emergency maneuvers when the vehicles might spin out, or reduce vehicle speed to prevent taking a turn too quickly and sliding off the road..

The technology was introduced in 1995 as an optional extra on luxury cars. By 2001, it was standard on most popular  vehicles and available as an option on many more. Today, all newly manufactured vehicles must include ESC, which the NHTSA report suggests is nothing but a positive for the safety of U.S. vehicles and motorists.

Saving a lot of lives

NHTSA isn’t the only entity to study the effectiveness of ESC. According to IIHS spokesman Russ Rader, ESC has been found to reduce the risk of a fatal single-car crash by 49 percent and the risk of a multicar crash by 20 percent for cars and SUVs.

“It’s pretty dramatic. Many single-vehicle crashes involve rolling over, and the way ESC helps prevent that is really quite significant,” Rader says.

According to Rader, ESC reduces the risk of fatal, single-vehicle rollovers by 75 percent for SUVs and by 72 percent for cars.

That being said, ESC is not a cure-all for deadly crashes. According to a 2010 report by IIHS researcher Charles Farmer, more than 7,000 vehicles with ESC had been involved in deadly crashes since 1995. He suggests that some loss-of-control situations may be too severe to be corrected through ESC’s braking and engine regulation. In other cases, a crash may be caused by a driver’s poor braking or steering.

According to Farmer, highway safety researchers and policy makers have begun to consider technologies that would complement ESC. For instance, the next few years could see the introduction of sensors connected to radar or video cameras that might be able to predict and respond to critical situations before they happen (such as rear-ending a vehicle that makes a sudden stop in front of you).

ESC and your car insurance

Whenever you can show your car insurance company that your vehicle is equipped with safety features, premiums are going to go down.

“In the long term, electronic stability control will reduce accident frequency and contribute to lower auto premiums for everyone,” says Greg Horn, vice president of industry relations at Mitchell International, an insurance consulting firm in California. “It reduces not only the most common fatal accident — the rollover — but it also reduces accidents of all types. And insurers like to see that.”

Horn suggests that a driver check to see whether his or her vehicle is equipped with ESC. A comprehensive list can be found on the IIHS website.

If your car does have ESC, the next step is calling your car insurance company to see whether it offers a discount. Farmers, for instance, has been offering a 5 percent discount on premiums for vehicles equipped with ESC since 2008.

“Long story short: If it’s available, it’s worth having,” Lynch says. “It could be a lifesaving device for you and your family. Trust me, it does what it’s supposed to do.”

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