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Is ESC The Greatest Safety Advancement Since The Seat Belt?

Electronic Vehicle Stability Control is a computerized system found in all new cars that is designed to improve vehicle stability by applying the brakes on various wheels when a loss of traction or skidding is detected. The intent is to reduce understeer and oversteer conditions that lead to increased accidents, and increased fatalities. In essence, it is a computerized driver’s aid that is supposed to be smarter than you are and that should make you a better driver.

Here is a video explaining how Electronic Vehicle Stability Control systems are supposed to work:

Just one little problem, Electronic Vehicle Stability Control has NOT provided the promised accident and fatality reductions!

I started this article thinking that it would be a simple piece about how electronic vehicle stability control systems save lives. However, when I started looking at the crash statistics, that’s not what I found!

The first clue came when I searched for white papers about the topic and found only predictive articles from 2004 and 2006. These were the same white papers that were used to justify the government regulations mandating the installation of electronic vehicle stability control systems in passenger cars in the U.S. and the EU that were rolled out from 2009 through 2014. Now that we have had up to 8 years of government mandated electronic stability control in passenger vehicles, why are there no data demonstrating the promised one-third reduction in accidents?

VW ESP program

Instead, we have no recent reports demonstrating the effectiveness of vehicle electronic stability control, and this is the big red flag. This is because the data on accident rates do not show the promised one-third reduction in accidents. In fact, the data show no change in accident rates at all since the implementation of electronic vehicle stability control systems. But, I get ahead of myself…

Accident in Braintree via CBS Boston

Electronic Stability Control (ESC) or Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), or whatever else you want to call it, has been described as one of the single greatest advancements in automotive safety in the history of the automobile. Nicole Nason, the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), stated back in 2006:

So here we are over a decade later; shouldn’t we be seeing some of this predicted advancement in vehicle safety?

Back in 2004, the U.S. NHTSA reviewed a number of international studies, and concluded that ESC/VSC reduces crashes by up to 35%. They went even further to say that SUV’s with ESC/VSC would be involved in as many as 67% fewer accidents. In the U.S., the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) issued a 2006 study claiming that ESC/VSC would save up to 10,000 lives annually by reducing fatal crashes by 43%; fatal single-vehicle crashes by 56%, and fatal single-vehicle rollovers by 77–

ESC via Euro NCAP

These studies prompted the U.S. Government and the European Parliament to implement ESC/VSC in all passenger vehicles under 10,000 pounds by 2012 for the U.S. and 2012 to 2014 for the EU. The U.S. actually passed Federal Law 49 CFR Parts 571 and 585, which phased in its regulation for ESC/VSC starting with 55% of 2009 models, 75% of 2010 models, 95% of 2011 models, and 100% of all vehicles by the 2012 sales

Were the IHSS and the NHTSA right? Starting as early as 2009, shouldn’t we have begun to see a significant drop in fatal car accidents due to the implementation of ESC/VSC? Today in 2017 we should be seeing multiple studies proving how correct the IHSS and NHTSA were about stability control in vehicles. So, why is it that we don’t see any new studies? It is because the data simply are not there to prove it.

Year after year, there are numerous factors that must be considered when evaluating the performance of a new safety system: Improved roads, new grading, better easements, better signage, fix a bump here, fix a curve there, an improvement in the car here and there, you get the picture… and you end up with a steady improvement rate. In the U.S. that year over year improvement rate is around 1.84% since 1980.

Car fatality rates via Wikipedia

When the government mandates a new safety protocol we should see the rate of improvement increase for a few years until that mandated safety measure is fully implemented, and then the rate should go back to roughly the same year over year improvement. This means that you have to account for life span of cars on the road, saturation rates of the safety measure into the overall pool of cars, etc. Once you run these numbers through the calculator a few dozen times, you end up with roughly half of all cars on the road today having some version of an ESC/VSC system.

Again, a few more clicks of the calculator, and we should be seeing a 2.13% improvement rate, if ESC/VSC was working. So how did electronic vehicle stability control actually perform?

Depending on how you do the math, from 2009 to 2015 we have an average improvement of somewhere between 0.94% and 1.48%, since ESC/VSC was implemented. Yes, this is below the 1.84% average annual reduction we have enjoyed since 1980. Hardly a vindication for electronic vehicle stability control now is it!

Active Traction Control via Jalponik

The bottom line is that electronic vehicle stability control simply isn’t living up to expectations. In no way is it showing signs of providing a 33% reduction in accident rates. In fact, it’s not showing any signs of improvement at all.

Should you turn your stability control system off? Heck no! It hasn’t made things worse either, and I’m just a part time blogger combing through a few statistics. What we really need here is a study by Michael Sivak at the University of Michigan to figure all this out. Michael, are you listening?

Keep driving my friends!

My thanks to Jeff, Alex and Larry for their amazing contributions to this article.

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