Helping drivers to steer clear

Transport Canada has launched a program designed to encourage Canadians to purchase cars equipped with ESC – electronic stability control.

  • Cars in a parking lot

Transport Canada has launched a program designed to encourage Canadians to purchase cars equipped with ESC – electronic stability control.

Among the components of the program is a video hosted by yours truly, intended to illustrate the benefits of this system.

Essentially, ESC determines if a driver is about to lose control of the vehicle and start to skid. It applies a variety of interventions to bring the vehicle back onto the driver’s intended path.

Sensors determine the direction and speed the car is going, and also the direction the driver wants it to go, as indicated by the position and rotational speed of the steering wheel.

If that predicted path does not jibe with the actual path, the system can apply braking force to one or more wheels to nudge the car back on line.

Skids can be divided into two categories: understeer and oversteer. These terms refer to the reaction of the vehicle to the driver’s input, not to that input itself.

The best explanation I have heard of the difference is that if you go into a corner too fast and the driver panics, it’s understeer. If the passenger panics, it’s oversteer.

That’s because understeer means the car is underreacting, i.e., is not turning as much as the driver intends, because the front wheels are losing grip, and the car is plowing straight ahead off the road. The driver loses all sense of feel and control at the wheel, but the passenger is usually unaware anything is wrong until the car hits something hard and nasty.

Oversteer occurs when the rear wheels lose grip, and the car overreacts, or fishtails. Often, countersteering can bring the car back; a skilled driver will sometimes induce oversteer just for the heck of it. Feels pretty lurid to the passenger, though.

Electronic stability control can help tame either condition. Generally, during understeer, ESC applies light brake pressure to the inside rear wheel. In an oversteering condition, the outside front wheel will get the treatment.

Many systems will also reduce engine power on the theory that if you’re going somewhere you really don’t want to go, why would you want to get there any faster?

Research conducted in Canada and around the world shows that ESC can reduce serious or fatal car crashes by 20 to 40 per cent.

ESC has proven to be particularly effective with big SUVs, because a skid in one of those often turns into a rollover, due to the vehicle’s high centre of gravity. Eliminate the skid, and you often eliminate the rollover. Especially when the occupants are unbelted, as they so often are.

Tim Shearman, president of the Canadian Automobile Association, said his organization strongly endorses ESC.

“With 48 per cent of all serious road crashes in Canada resulting from loss of control, ESC is the most profound improvement to motor vehicle safety since the seat belt,” he said at a recent demonstration of ESC’s capabilities at Ontario Place. “The CAA encourages its members and all Canadians to consider purchasing an ESC-equipped vehicle when looking for a new car.”

Transport Canada has also investigated the public’s knowledge level about ESC, and found it wanting. Many car owners think their car has ESC when it doesn’t; many who have it don’t know they have it, and don’t know what it can and cannot do.

This public awareness program is designed to fix that.

One of the challenges with ESC is that it goes by many names. Each car maker insists on its own acronym or sub-brand. ESP: Electronic Stability Program; DSC: Directional Stability Control; VDC: Vehicle Dynamic Control; Stabilitrak; AdvanceTrak.

There are at least a dozen more.

If the name has “control,” “dynamic” or “stability” in it, chances are it’s ESC.

To align with upcoming U.S. and global standards, Transport Canada is proposing to mandate ESC for all light vehicles manufactured on or after Sept. 1, 2011.

Unlike the U.S., however, Transport Canada is not mandating a phased introduction of ESC. In the U.S., 30 per cent of all 2009 model year vehicles must have ESC. That rises to 60 per cent for 2010, 90 per cent for 2011, and 100 per cent for 2012. For now, all you can do is make sure you get it.

Then put four snow tires on your car, keep your belts tight, drive unimpaired by alcohol, other drugs, fatigue or distraction, and you’ll be as safe in your car as you likely can be.

Jim Kenzie is Wheels’ chief auto correspondent. He can be reached at

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