Stability Control to Be Mandatory

Toyota tests stability control in a vehicle at its technical center in Japan.
Toyota tests stability control in a vehicle at its technical center in Japan. (By Katsumi Kasahara -- Associated Press)
By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 14, 2006

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is set to announce a preliminary regulation requiring electronic stability control technology on all new vehicles.

The technology, which has been described as the most important automotive safety advance since seat belts, helps prevent vehicles from veering out of control and possibly rolling over. Nicole Nason, the NHTSA administrator, is expected to outline the new regulation during a news conference today.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimated in a report in June that as many as 10,000 deaths a year could be prevented if all vehicles were equipped with the feature. Auto companies have said the systems are more critical in preventing deaths than air bags, which are credited with saving 1,200 lives per year.

Stability control systems use electronic sensors linked to onboard computers to detect steering problems -- usually at high speeds or on slippery surfaces -- and activate a vehicle's brakes and slow the engine to help drivers maintain control.

The technology, which dates to the early 1990s, has been included on an increasing number of vehicles in recent years, particularly on large sport-utility vehicles, which are prone to roll over. Stability control is standard on about 40 percent of vehicles sold nationwide and available as an option on another 15 percent. Nearly all new SUVs have the technology, according to companies that supply the systems.

Automakers use different names for the feature, which can confuse consumers. Many drivers who have the system aren't sure if they have it or how it works. General Motors Corp., which has said it would make the system available on all models by 2010, calls its StabiliTrak. The feature is also known as Electronic Stability Program and Active Handling.

Ford Motor Co. said it would put electronic stability systems on all Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles by the end of 2009. The feature is standard on all models made by Audi, BMW, Infiniti, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz, which pioneered the technology. Cadillac, Jaguar, Mini, Toyota and Volvo, among others, offer the system as an option on all models.

Joan Claybrook, president of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said the suppliers of the technology have shifted tactics and have begun using consumer education campaigns along with heavy lobbying of federal officials to create demand for the new feature. In the past, they had relied solely on automakers to adopt the technology.

"Suppliers try to sell features to the manufacturers. A lot of the time manufacturers say we are very interested but not now. That goes on for a number of years," she said.

Dan Warrell, lead director of electronic stability control systems for auto-parts supplier Delphi Corp., said the technology was coming regardless of government regulation. Warrell said that adding electronic sensors as a result of the new government requirements could allow auto suppliers to provide still broader safety features.

Auto-parts suppliers have showcased in Washington other advanced technology features, such as systems that use cameras and infrared sensors to spot sudden obstructions and activate the brakes before a crash. Other systems tighten seat belts automatically when sensors anticipate an accident or buzz seats as drivers drift out of their lane, possibly because they are dozing off.

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