Staying in Control

For the last 50 years auto safety advocates have concentrated most of their efforts on making auto accidents more survivable for vehicle occupants.  Because of this, we have such safety advancements as airbags, auto body "crush zones," and the greatest safety advancement of the era, the simple seat belt.  While no one can doubt the efficacy of these advancements, there is another area of research and development that promises equally startling advancements to the cause of safety, and it revolves around vehicle systems that help keep accidents from occurring in the first place.  Auto engineers call it "active safety," while referring to things like airbags as "passive safety systems."

The ultimate active safety system would be an accident-avoidance system -- technology that now seems like Jules Vernesque science fiction, but is actually coming closer and closer to reality in the real world.  Such a system would have the ability to take total control of the vehicle from the driver in critically dangerous conditions, slowing the engine, applying the brakes and even steering the vehicle out of danger.  

We're not there yet, but current technology includes a system that comes close.  Today's Electronic Stability Control (or ESC) doesn't take over steering control from the driver, but it does enhance the driver's ability to stay in control of his or her car and steer it out of danger.  By combining the technologies of anti-lock brakes, traction control, and enhanced lateral stability, ESC detects when a driver is about to lose control of a vehicle and automatically intervenes to provide stability and help the driver stay on course. In a recent study, ESC was shown to increase a driver's control over his or her vehicle by 34 percent, making the technology a milestone on the path to safer cars.

Even the most skillful driver can't match ESC's ability to help maintain vehicle control, because ESC does things that the best driver can't do - namely applying brakes to individual wheels when instability is detected by its electronic sensors and reported to its computer "brain."

While Europeans have benefited from the advantages of ESC for several years now, Americans have been a bit slower to adopt the technology.  But in 2004, many major automotive manufacturers have corroborated the importance of this technology by including ESC in their models. ESC comes as a standard feature in all vehicles from Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, and select models from Acura, Chrysler, Ford Motor Company (including Volvo), General Motors Corporation (including Saab), Infiniti, Lexus, Nissan, Porsche, Subaru, Toyota and Volkswagen. It is available as an option in other models, but, unfortunately, many auto salespeople don't really understand the new system and don't explain it well to their prospective customers.

That's sad, because, according to the World Health Organization, road crashes are the second leading cause of death among young people aged five to 29.  Another point of confusion is the fact that ESC is marketed under various trade names.  To see what trade name your favorite brand uses for this life-saving technology and to learn more about how it works, visit the Evergreen Safety Council's Web site.

Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad is a member of the ESC Coalition Advisory Panel.