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New Rule for Electronic Stability Control Shortchanges Drivers, Consumers

April 5, 2007

New Rule for Electronic Stability Control Shortchanges Drivers, Consumers

Statement of Joan Claybrook, President, Public Citizen*

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) today issued a final rule mandating electronic stability control (ESC) in all vehicles – but amazingly it requires systems that are less advanced than what automakers are already installing in vehicles already on the road. NHTSA has the authority to issue technology-forcing standards, but in this case, it is undercutting the likelihood that manufacturers will continue selling the superior technology now being offered to consumers.

While we are pleased that the agency has substantially sped up the implementation schedule for the final rule and added engine control – one of the more important components omitted in its proposed rule – we are disappointed that the final rule is still not stringent enough.

The rule complies with historic safety mandates in a 2005 highway transportation law. That law requires that all passenger vehicles under 10,000 pounds – which applies to all passenger cars and most SUVs – be equipped with electronic stability control to help prevent the vehicles from veering off roads and rolling over in crashes. 

What Congress demanded was an important development in preventing deadly rollover crashes.  If properly implemented, the law could save thousands of lives that otherwise would be lost in rollover crashes. NHTSA estimates that 5,300 to 9,600 deaths a year would be prevented by installing the kinds of systems now on the market, but these numbers appear to be overstated because they are based on the range of systems now offered, not on those mandated by NHTSA’s less extensive rule.

Although NHTSA Administrator Nicole Nason has touted the new rule as requiring “the most technologically advanced safety equipment available,” the truth is that what it has demanded is less sophisticated than every ESC system currently installed.

The new ESC rule falls short in several ways:

  • It does not require roll stability control, which corrects vehicle tip-up, a feature to prevent vehicles like SUVs from tipping over. (ESC measures the vehicle’s side-to-side movement.)
  • It does not mandate the most extensive equipment available: every system on the road today is more extensive than what the new ESC standard requires.
  • It requires the system to prevent loss of control when the vehicle turns less than the driver intends it to (understeer) without requiring a performance test to validate the effectiveness of the understeer intervention.

By the agency’s own admission, rollover crashes are a complex problem, and the solution to reducing rollover crash fatalities will require more than electronic stability control. A comprehensive response to protect occupants when rollover crashes occur is vital and will be addressed with other safety standards now in process.

Instead of fully protecting consumers, NHTSA has decided to demand less than the best. Rollover crashes are too deadly for the agency to approach this promising crash prevention technology with such mediocre ambitions.

* Joan Claybrook was administrator of NHTSA from 1977-1981.