WASHINGTON (AP) - - The U.S. government, impressed by the promise of anti-rollover technology, is planning to require automakers to include electronic stability control devices on all new vehicles in the coming years.
The technology has been hailed by automakers, suppliers and safety advocates for its potential in reducing traffic deaths and rollovers. The government's top traffic safety official has said it could have the greatest affect on auto safety since the arrival of seat belts.
About 40 per cent of new vehicles have it as standard equipment and auto industry officials expect it to be available on all vehicles by 2010. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is set to unveil proposed rules for stability control on Thursday that also will include testing standards for auto manufacturers. NHTSA officials have declined to release details.
One study found that stability control could lead to a reduction of 10,000 deaths a year if all vehicles had the technology, almost one-quarter of the more than 43,000 people killed on the roads annually.
"These are staggering statistics compared to most safety technologies that are installed on the vehicles today. This technology will save lives," said William Kozyra, president and CEO of Continental Automotive Systems, North America, a leading supplier of stability control.
Kozyra called it "the most important automotive safety technology of our generation."
The crash avoidance technology senses when a driver may lose control, automatically applying brakes to individual wheels to help make it stable and avoid a rollover. Many sport utility vehicles, vans and pickups have the equipment.
NHTSA administrator Nicole Nason has said the agency will mandate the equipment, estimating it would save 10,600 lives when fully implemented into the fleet. During a July hearing before the U.S. Congress, she said it "could be the greatest safety innovation since the safety belt."
Rollovers have had particularly fatal consequences, leading to more than 10,000 deaths a year despite accounting for only about three per cent of all crashes. SUVs and other vehicles with high centres of gravity have been susceptible to rollovers.
Automakers have been receptive to the technology and have indicated little resistance in the decision to mandate the equipment because they have already been including it on their vehicles.
Ford Motor Co. announced Wednesday that it would make it standard equipment in all new vehicles by the end of 2009 while General Motors Corp. has said it will be included in all vehicles by the end of 2010. Virtually all Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles have it as an option and it has been standard on all Toyota SUVs since the 2004 model year.
Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator and head of Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog, called electronic stability control "breakthrough technology" but said it would be difficult to predict how many lives it could save.
Early in the development of the air bag, she said initial studies predicted it could save about 9,000 people a year, much higher than the 2,300 lives it saves annually.
"Until you get it into production and onto vehicles, you don't know how large the numbers are going to be," Claybrook said.
A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety earlier this year predicted 10,000 deaths could be prevented a year if passenger vehicles had the technology. The study found stability control reduced the risk of single-vehicle rollovers involving SUVs by 80 per cent.
One of the benefits of stability control is that it doesn't require anything from the driver. While other crash avoidance technologies, such as lane departure warning, require the driver to react, stability control senses the vehicle veering out of control and stabilizes it.
"There really isn't any downsides that we're seeing," said Russ Rader, an Insurance Institute spokesman. Electronic Stability Control "is in a unique club with only seat belts and air bags for it's lifesaving potential."
Automakers caution that seat belts will remain the most essential tool in avoiding death or injury in a crash. Seat belts save an estimated 15,000 motorist a year.
Robert Yakushi, Nissan North America Inc.'s director of product safety, environmental, said the technology "shouldn't be characterized as a cure-all for all handling situations" but something that helps drivers maintain control in some situations.
"If everyone depends on vehicle stability control, I think, to save them in every situation, I think that builds overconfidence in the driver," Yakushi said, stressing that "the driver is key to vehicle safety."