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ESC and Driver Adaptation

NHTSA has predicted that electronic stability control “would save 5,300 to 9,600 lives and prevent 156,000 to 238,000 injuries in all types of crashes annually once all light vehicles on the road are equipped with ESC.”

This article brings up a few of the reasons why that estimate — as with previous technological interventions — might be high (even if there is still a net safety gain). One of the operative questions is how aware people are of the presence of ESC, and whether they can actually feel its effects, and what new problems owing to unintended consequences might arise.

But not everyone sees stability control as a cure-all that will prevent all road crashes.

Independent stability control development specialist Graeme Gambold says that while he supports the rolling out of the system, there are drawbacks. One is the dumbing down of drivers who increasingly are relying on technology to get them out of fixes.

“With the new regulation calling for every car to be equipped with [stability control], I worry that skill deprivation is not an issue in the minds of governments,” Gambold says. “Yet this is the great killer on our roads. You’ve still got to be smart and still need a high level of skill to drive a motor car but authorities seem to think that there is a technological fix for the road toll.”

Gambold says stability control is only as good as a vehicle’s grip on the road. “It’s not as effective on more slippery surfaces such as ice, snow and on gravel,” he says. “Any number of environmental factors – crowned roads, potholes and broken road edges – can reduce its effectiveness.”

Another shortfall of stability control systems is that they will only try to control the car in the direction of your steering command.

“Turning the wheel into the slide can tell the system its task has finished and it may cease its assistance,” Gambold says.

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This entry was posted on Monday, November 23rd, 2009 at 9:17 am and is filed under Traffic safety. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

6 Responses to “ESC and Driver Adaptation”

  1. Jeffrey Early Says:

    The point about drivers increasingly relying on technology to get them out of fixes is well taken. A great example of this is people’s reliance on their brakes. In modern cars, people are perfectly happy to go flying right up to a stop sign and then stomp on the brakes at the last second. This is bad for a number of reasons, but almost always works because brakes are so fantastic these days. Now go try that with cars from the mid 1980s or earlier, and you’ll find you need much more distance (and effort) to stop.

    That said, I still agree with the general conclusion that technology fixes like this will save lives, but that the estimates may be high.

  2. John Says:

    Because the default will always be driver control, perhaps Mr. Vanderbilt will comment on the line of writing I use in “Best Driver In The World.” My reasoning could be used in a 1957 Cadillac or a 2009 Acura.

    A car that drives itself takes away an important freedom and will not be that accepted.

  3. Scott Says:

    I’m not sure I completely agree with John. Based on the number of cars that are sold with automatic transmissions and ABS brakes, I’d say drivers aren’t completely concerned about their freedoms being taken away.

    Personally, I think this “dumbing down” of driving is actually worse for safety. The prevelance of automatic features leads drivers to think they can pay less attention to driving and more attention to eating, texting, shaving, etc. Just think how many people would be able to eat and drive if we didn’t have automatic transmissions.

    I’m not a psychologist, but there’s also a relationship between perceived risk and dangerous behavior. If you’ve got airbags, traction control, stability control, and everything else then why bother to drive more carefully? Have you ever noticed that most of the vehicles off the road in the winter are 4WD/AWD? Drivers don’t think they need to slow down when it’s slippery because they have the “safety of 4WD/AWD”.

  4. John Says:

    It’s important and interesting to mention automatic transmissions– I wouldn’t want to be without one.

  5. clever-title Says:

    This isn’t all that surprising. For years (especially since Freakonomics was published) economists have been talking about drivers acting in more risky ways when technology reduces the impact of the risk. Since seat belts, airbags, crumple zones, and the like don’t reduce the impact to pedestrians, cyclists, telephone poles, the roads are less safe to non-drivers.

    If you really wanted drivers to act more responsibly, you would include technology that internalizes the risk to the driver, like a kitchen knife mounted to the steering wheel pointed at the driver’s heart.

  6. fred_dot_u Says:

    It’s great to see someone who recognizes that making the driver feel safe does not mean that it’s safe for everyone!

    Put the driver in a bubble at the very front of the vehicle, put all drivers at the front, and see how much care is taken when driving!

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Slate.com Transport column to me at: info@howwedrive.com.

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