You are driving down a lonely back road.
Your car hits a patch of black ice and begins to slew out of control. As you struggle to remember what to do, the car takes over, stops the slide and prevents you from slipping straight off the road.
This is not the future. Electronic stability control (ESC) already prevents thousands of accidents a year, and beginning Sept. 1 it must be standard on every new car built for sale in America.
Experts everywhere agree that ESC saves lives. Insurance companies offer a discount for vehicles so equipped. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) estimates that if every vehicle on the road had ESC, fatal accidents would be reduced by 10,000 per year. Its 2010 study found that ESC reduces fatal crash involvement on average 33 percent -- a 20 percent reduction for multiple-vehicle crashes and 49 percent for single-car crashes.
It is a game-changing technology.
David Champion, the director of automotive testing at Consumer Reports, says, "If you are looking at the best ways to prevent deaths, seat belts are still No. 1, ESC is a close second and airbags are a distant third."
ESC is very effective at preventing rollovers
ESC has proved to be extremely effective at preventing rollovers in both SUVs and passenger cars. IIHS research shows that ESC can reduce the risk of fatal single-vehicle rollovers by 75 percent for SUVs and 72 percent for cars.
Federal research concurs. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that ESC can prevent 85 percent of SUV rollovers and 64 percent of car rollovers.
"Drivers of SUVs are now among the least likely to die in crashes," says Russ Rader, spokesperson at IIHS. "This is a big change from just a few years ago."
Many experts feel that ESC is even more important for teen drivers. If you have teen drivers in the house, putting them in an ESC-equipped car will not only save money on car insurance rates but it may possibly save their lives.
"Excessive speed and loss of control are two of the biggest factors in teen accidents," Champion notes. "ESC helps them with both of these factors."
Champion is so impressed with ESC that he predicts that the eventual transition of all teens into ESC-equipped cars will bring up to a 60 percent reduction in fatal teen accidents.
How ESC prevents auto accidents
How does ESC work? A microcomputer monitors signals from sensors, checking 25 times a second whether the steering input correctly corresponds to the direction that the car is moving. When it detects the vehicle moving in the wrong direction, it immediately reacts, strategically applying the brakes and reducing engine torque to put the car back on the desired path.
ESC was first implemented in luxury and sports cars, leveraging the same technology used in traction control and anti-lock brakes. BMW and Mercedes were the first two manufacturers to put ESC on their vehicles. American automakers followed suit when GM partnered with Delphi Corp. and in 1997 introduced StabiliTrak on certain Cadillac models.
As it became obvious to automakers that ESC prevented accidents, they increasingly added it to their model lineups under names that vary from AdvanceTrac at Ford to Vehicle Stability Control at Toyota.
In 2007 , roughly 22 percent of cars and 53 percent of pickups and SUVs came with ESC as a standard feature. By 2009, every SUV sold in the U.S. came with ESC as standard equipment.
After an extensive review of the available studies, NHTSA issued regulations that all vehicles manufactured after Sept. 1, 2011, for sale in the U.S. must be equipped with ESC as standard. Manufacturers have already moved on these requirements, according to the IIHS. In the 2011 model year, ESC was standard on 90 percent of cars, 100 percent of SUVs, and 72 percent of pickups.
Safety advocates acted even more quickly than the government. Consumer Reports will not put a vehicle on its annual Top Picks list unless ESC is available and pulled its recommendation on the 2010 Honda Civic because ESC was not available. IIHS, similarly, won't put a vehicle on its Top Safety Picks list without it.
The future of accident prevention
While ESC can often prevent a fatal crash, it does operate in the realm of physics. If a car is put into a situation that is too severe, ESC will be unable to correct it. In the last 15 years more than 7,000 vehicles equipped with ESC have been involved in fatal accidents.
Some experts fear that drivers will become overconfident now that ESC is there to catch them. Indeed, as ESC has moved from luxury and sports vehicles into more mainstream cars, its overall effectiveness estimates have dropped roughly 10 percentage points, the IIHS found.
Automakers are already working on the next big thing in crash-avoidance technology. These systems pair radar or video cameras to sensors that can predict a critical situation and correctly respond to prevent an accident. The goal, somewhere in the future, is to eliminate serious accidents.