Federal regulators will require new automobiles to be equipped with anti-rollover technology know as electronic stability control (ESC) by 2012.
Auto safety experts describe stability control systems as the single most important vehicle safety improvement since the seat belt. ESC reduces the risk of all single-vehicle crashes by more than 40 percent and fatal crashes by 56 percent, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
ESC systems use automatic computer-controlled braking of individual wheels to help the driver maintain control in situations where a vehicle without ESC would skid out of control and likely leave the road.
Nearly all rollover crashes occur after a vehicle leaves the road.
The proposed National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) rule would require all manufacturers to begin equipping passenger vehicles under 10,000 pounds with ESC starting with the 2009 model year and to have the system available as standard equipment on all vehicles by the 2012 model year or September 2011 when the model year begins.
NHTSA estimates that ESC will save between 5,300 and 10,300 lives annually and prevent between 168,000 and 252,000 injuries. ESC will prevent between 4,200 and 5,400 of the more than 10,000 deaths that occur each year as a result of rollover crashes, according to NHTSA.
NHTSA also estimates that ESC systems required by the proposed regulation will cost $111 per vehicle on vehicles that already include ABS brakes.
Ford Motor Co. has announced that it would put stability control on its entire lineup by the end of 2009 and General Motors Corp. is planning to have the technology on all vehicles by 2010. Several automakers have made ESC standard equipment on SUVs.
Safety advocates have said the technology represents a crucial development in making cars, trucks and SUVs safer.
Joan Claybrook, president of the consumer oriented Public Citizen and a former administrator at NHTSA warns that it is difficult to predict how many lives ESC could save.
"Until you get it into production and onto vehicles, you dont know how large the numbers are going to be," Claybrook said.
NHTSA announced the new regulation after two years of testing on more than 50 vehicles. Congress gave NHTSA until 2009 to issue a final regulation.
"We will need time to ensure that nothing in this proposed rule would inhibit our members to keep adding this life-saving technology to more and more vehicles," said Gloria Bergquist, vice president at the Alliance of Automotive Manufacturers, which represents General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., DaimlerChrysler AG and Toyota Motor Corp.
NHTSA also must decide if it will permit off-road vehicles like Jeeps to have on/off switches for ESC. While the system helps prevent accidents, it also inhibits performance, especially for off-road vehicles.