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Life-saving technology standard on more vehicles

By Matt Nauman San Jose Mercury News

Simply put, electronic stability control is the most important auto safety innovation since seat belts.

That’s the consensus from Consumer Reports, the federal government, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and many other auto industry experts.

“Our recommendation to consumers is that you want to buy a vehicle with electronic stability control,” said David Zuby, a vice president of the Insurance Institute. “It’s a very effective way of reducing the risk of fatal crashes.”

The good news is that the high-tech system that helps prevent rollovers and other accidents caused when a car skids out of control is found on more and more of today’s new cars and trucks. The Insurance Institute says 73 percent of 2009 models will have stability control as standard fare, and it’s available as an option on an additional 14 percent of vehicles.

The better news is that the full implementation of stability control – 100 percent of vehicles must have it by 2012, the federal government says – might prevent thousands of fatalities a year. Statistics show that half of fatalities occur in single-vehicle crashes, and fully half of those are preventable using ESC, according to Insurance Institute research.

Yet unlike air bags and anti-lock brakes, which most consumers have become familiar with, electronic stability control remains a mystery to most motorists. That’s partly because it’s a complex and relatively new technology.

And it doesn’t help that automakers insist on calling it by many different names.

South Korean automaker Hyundai sees ESC as both a lifesaving technology and a competitive business advantage. That’s why it puts a sticker on every new vehicle it sells (except the budget-price Accent) touting the ESC on board.

“We are definitely not a brand that embraces a technology that has not been proven effective,” said John Krafcik, the acting president and chief executive of Hyundai Motor America, based in Fountain Valley, Calif. “We can’t afford to do that. Electronic stability control is definitely helping to avoid fatalities.”

When Hyundai introduced the redesigned Sonata in 2005, it was the only midsize sedan with ESC as a standard feature, Krafcik said. Rivals such as Honda and Mazda have since added it to their Accord and Mazda6 models, while it remains an option on the best-selling Toyota Camry.

Research showed that stability control was the No. 1 deciding factor for buyers who picked the Sonata over the Camry, he said.

Starting in 2008, Consumer Reports magazine required that its top car picks – choices closely watched by many buyers – have ESC, either as a standard feature or as a readily available option.

“We strongly recommend buying an ESC-equipped vehicle,” said Doug Love, a Consumer Reports spokesman.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety agrees, saying since 2007 that its Top Safety Picks must offer ESC. Its just-released top small-car picks include three vehicles with stability control as a standard feature (Scion xB, Subaru Impreza, VW Rabbit 4-door) and three with optional ESC (Honda Civic 4-door, Mitsubishi Lancer, Toyota Corolla).

The Insurance Institute’s Joe Nolan noted cars aren’t involved in rollovers as much as SUVs and pickup trucks, but “when they do roll, the consequences can be deadly.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation, as well as the Insurance Institute, a nonprofit researcher funded by insurers, has done much of the research related to stability control. ESC will reduce single-vehicle fatal crash risk by 51 percent, and multiple-vehicle fatal crash risk by 20 percent for cars and SUVs, the institute says.

The technology is particularly useful on sport-utility vehicles, which tend to be top-heavy and more prone to rolling over. ESC reduces the risk of a fatal single-vehicle rollover in an SUV by 72 percent, according to the institute. About 10,000 Americans die each year in rollover accidents.

How many vehicles offer ESC? More all the time. It was an optional feature on the 2008 Mini Cooper, but was made a standard feature for 2009. Other vehicles, such as the Chevy Colorado pickup, Ford Escape hybrid SUV, Ford F-150 pickup and Honda Fit subcompact added ESC for the first time in 2009. A Web site, ratings/esc/esc.aspx, offers a gadget where consumers can search vehicles by year, make and model to see if it has ESC.

While standard on more new vehicles, it’s affordable as an option. On a 2009 Toyota Corolla, for instance, stability control is offered for $250. Also, some insurance companies offer discounts on vehicles with ESC.

While 99 percent of the 2009 model-year sport-utility vehicles provide ESC as a standard feature, just 37 percent of pickups do. It’s standard on 74 percent of 2009 model-year passenger cars, up from 64 percent in 2008.

Consumer Reports and the Insurance Institute acknowledge that electronic stability control systems, which come from several auto suppliers, aren’t identical.

“We test the systems as part of the vehicle’s overall performance. And we do see differences in the performance of ESC systems from one vehicle to the next,” said Love of Consumer Reports. “They all use slightly different algorithms, which determine when the system is triggered and how the vehicle responds.”

While the number of U.S. auto fatalities per miles driven has decreased in recent years, the number of deaths has remained steady at 37,000 to 39,000 a year since 1995. Safety technologies such as electronic stability control, as well as newer innovations such as lane-departure prevention systems and predictive collision systems, are expected to lessen that number.

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