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Should "stability control" be mandatory?

By 11.28.06

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There is talk of making electronic stability control a mandatory feature on all new cars by 2012.

Unlike seat belts, padded dashboards and air bags -- which are "passive" safety features that are there to prevent or at least reduce injury in the event of a crash -- electronic stability control is an "active" system designed to help prevent an accident from happening in the first place.

This raises an interesting question: Under what conditions does stability control kick in? Among the commonplace scenarios: Carrying excessive speed into a decreasing radius corner; abrupt steering inputs (which unsettle the car and may cause violent weight transfer, etc.), rapid deceleration caused by panic braking (from following too closely, for example).

These are problems caused by driver error. Stability control can "correct" for the poor judgment or driver inexperience. But if you stop to think about it, the underlying issue is the poor judgment and inexperience of the driver; it might be more fruitful to fix that than work overtime trying to protect iffy drivers from the consequences of their own lack of skill and good judgment.

I test drive new cars each week and have done so for the past 12 years -- so I've had plenty of opportunity to drive many different types of vehicles, ranging from ultra-exotic high-performance sports cars to bottom-feeding economy cars. Many of the vehicles I test drive come equipped with electronic stability control. Excepting a few inherently unstable SUVs, the stability control system usually activates only when I've begun to really "push" the vehicle -- high-speed cornering, for example. And when I say that, I mean 20 mph or faster than the normal speed of traffic in that corner.

In a car driven within 10 mph of the posted speed limit -- and within the bounds of common sense -- it's rare for the system to ever come on.

Yes, there are some exceptions. On rain or ice-slicked roads, for example, stability control might save your life (or at least keep you from banging up the sheet metal). And when we're talking about genuine "accidents" -- for example, a violent skid induced as a result of the driver swerving suddenly to avoid a deer that appeared in the road -- then yes, stability control can make all the difference.

However, it's equally true that a large percentage of the "accidents" where stability control could be of help aren't really accidents at all. Because these "accidents" could have been avoided had the driver not been driving excessively fast, or beyond his ability to keep the vehicle safely under control. One can't anticipate and may not be able to avoid a deer running into the road. On the other hand, one can anticipate and avoid a wreck caused by deliberately pushing it (the car's limits of grip and one's own abilities) in a high-speed corner. Or by driving excessively fast in poor weather.

Or in broad daylight, for that matter.

Stability control might save you from the consequences of your own poor judgment in such cases -- but exercising good judgment would have been just as effective. Perhaps more so. And it surely would be less expensive and complicated.

Stability control currently adds in the neighborhood of $1,000 in initial, "up front" costs to a new car or truck. And like any other functional aspect of a piece of machinery, it's another "part" (many parts, actually) that will eventually require service -- another expense. As the vehicle it's installed in ages, the cost of repairs grows -- while the worth of the vehicle declines. After eight or ten years, the down-the-road owner of the car may (and likely will) face the prospect of a repair involving $1,000 or more for a car that by then is worth perhaps $2,500.

Same thing with air bags. Many new/2007 model year vehicles have as many as six of them. But their "shelf life" is about ten years -- at which point the automaker/manufacturer of the air bags warns that the entire system should be inspected and major system components replaced. But who is going to pony up for that kind of big-ticket repair work on a 10-year-old beater? "How much is your life worth?" is just demagoguery. Not everyone can afford a $30,000 new car. Or $1,000 repairs on an older car.

Of course, air bags have the argument of passive safety on their side. There's little one can do to prevent someone else from ramming into you after running a red light, for example. But with stability control, much of the potential threat is under one's own control -- a qualitative difference. Drive within your limits, with prudence and good judgment -- and the chances of your ever finding yourself in a violent, uncontrollable skid are lowered dramatically.

Become a highly skilled driver -- by attending a serious driving school such as those run by ex-racers like Bob Bondurant or Skip Barber -- and you will learn how to handle a car in a panic-stop/emergency situation. You'll learn how to react when a car begins to lose grip -- and how to "recover" when a skid happens. And you'll have reduced your need for an electronic crutch like stability control significantly -- to the point where it's legitimate to ask whether it's worth spending the money for it in the first place. And more specifically, whether the government ought to be forcing you to buy it by making it a mandatory "safety" feature on any new car you might buy.

Arguably, we could make new cars safer by simply expecting more of drivers than by developing ever-more-elaborate (and expensive) ways of keeping marginally competent drivers out of trouble.

That's not politically correct, of course. We live in an entitlement age, where a driver's license is both easy to get and hard to take away -- even when an individual repeatedly demonstrates incompetence (for example, multiple "at-fault" accidents over a period of less than five years, etc.) But if safer cars -- and fewer accidents and motor vehicle fatalities -- are the goal, at least part of the fix is to insist that drivers up their skill set and behave responsibly behind the wheel.

Technology can help, of course. But it can't protect us against the consequences of our own poor judgment -- nor should we expect it to. Unless what we expect is a continual "dumbing-down" of the average motorist, with technology picking up the slack.

And all of us picking up the tab.

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.