With all the hype about 2012 models and auto-show concepts grabbing the headlines, perhaps the most important introduction of the new model year slipped by beneath the radar on Sept. 1.
It wasn’t a new vehicle but a new regulation, Canadian Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (CMVSS) 126, requiring that all vehicles for sale in Canada manufactured on or after that date, having a total mass of 4,536 kg (10,000 pounds) or less, must be equipped with Electronic Stability Control (ESC).
Essentially the same standard has been progressively phased in over the past three years in the United States, reaching 100 per cent implementation there at the same time.
It’s an important rule because ESC is among the most effective safety technologies to be mandated since Vehicle Safety Standards were introduced more than 40 years ago.
A literature review on the subject reveals that the adoption of ESC has the potential to reduce fatalities from single-vehicle car crashes by 30 to 50 per cent and those involving SUVs by 50 to 70 per cent. Those aren’t just theoretical projections but statistical probabilities based on real-word experience.
In addition, fatalities due to rollover crashes may be reduced by 70 to 90 per cent, regardless of vehicle type.
Stated in different terms, according to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), across-the-board adoption of ESC could save up to 9,600 lives annually and prevent up to 238,000 injuries in that country alone. Just what is this magic elixir? It’s nothing magic at all; just modern technology well applied.
As its name implies, it is an electronic control system that helps keep a vehicle going on a stable path in conditions that might otherwise provoke a skid or a spin. In colloquial parlance, it is sometimes referred to as “skid control.”
The term Electronic Stability Control is generic. Individual automakers may identify it by a variety of proprietary names, such as: AdvanceTrac; Dynamic Stability Control (DSC); Electronic Stability Program (ESP); StabiliTrak; Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA); Vehicle Stability Control (VSC); and Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC).
Technically, it’s a further evolution of the technology introduced in the 1980s for Traction Control and ABS (AntiLock Brake System).
Individually, they sense and act to limit wheelspin or lockup by applying or releasing the brakes at individual wheels and/or reducing engine power output. ESC does the same thing, but typically adds additional sensors to monitor steering input and yaw angle and speed.
If those sensors determine that the vehicle is turning more or less than the steering input is directing it to turn, as in a front-wheel-slide or rear-wheel-skid, ESC either reduces engine power or applies the appropriate individual brake(s), or both, to bring it back on course.
So, for example, if the front end of your vehicle should begin to slide out when negotiating a right-hand turn on a slippery road, ESC would sense that happening — probably before you do — and might apply light pressure to the right rear brake.
Doing so would cause the vehicle to pivot around that wheel, ever so slightly, and that action would tighten its turning circle and bring the vehicle back toward the path in which it’s being steered.
Or, if it is a front-wheel-drive vehicle, ESC might reduce the engine’s power output just a bit, reducing the driving force to the front wheels, thus allowing more of the tires’ traction to be devoted to cornering — again tightening its turning circle and bringing the vehicle back toward its steered path.
In the case of an imminent rear-wheel slide on the same right-hand turn, ESC might choose to lightly apply the brake at the left front wheel, thus helping to straighten the car’s direction, and/ or to reduce engine power in a rear-wheel-drive vehicle.
The choice of actions may vary depending on the combination of circumstances.
Some ESC may be temporarily switched off, which can be advantageous if you’re stuck in mud or snow.
In addition, some high-performance vehicles offer one or more modes with raised thresholds of intervention, to permit more driver involvement for track outings.
But in all other conditions, the statistics verify that it’s best left on.