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Officials Propose New Regulations to Prevent Rollovers

September 14, 2006 at 6:35 PM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: Rollover crashes like this can be harrowing. Today, the government announced it’s taking a big step to reduce them.

NICOLE NASON, Administrator, NHTSA: I am extremely proud to announce our proposal to make electronic stability control a standard feature on all passenger vehicles by model year 2012.

RAY SUAREZ: Speaking to reporters today, Nicole Nason, who heads the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said electronic stability control, or ESC, is the biggest breakthrough since seatbelts and could save thousands of lives.

NICOLE NASON: Electronic stability control uses computer-controlled breaking of the individual tires to help control the vehicle. It helps the driver maintain control in situations where the vehicle would otherwise spin out. By helping to keep the vehicle on the road, it could be possible to prevent the crash entirely.

RAY SUAREZ: A 2004 agency study found that ESC reduced fatalities in single-vehicle crashes by 30 percent for passenger cars and 63 percent for SUVs. Over the past two years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has urged car manufacturers to include the safety feature as standard equipment. ESC is already standard in about one out of four 2006 models and half of rollover-prone SUVs.

Causes of a rollover

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the proposed new rules and the new technology, I'm joined by Susan Ferguson, vice president for research at the non-profit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The organization tracks safety trends and statistics for auto insurers and others.

What makes a vehicle roll over in the first place? Why does this happen?

SUSAN FERGUSON, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety: Well, it's a combination of things. You know, for some vehicles, like SUVs, they are somewhat more unstable to begin with because they tend to ride higher off the ground.

But usually what precedes it is some kind of a loss of control. The vehicle runs off the road. Maybe there's a change of surface, there's a ditch they roll into. So, really, I think, you know, it's the loss of control that will often precede it.

RAY SUAREZ: The administrator in our taped report began to explain how it works. She mentioned differential braking on the wheels. How does that stop a car that's going to roll over from doing it?

SUSAN FERGUSON: Well, what it does initially, obviously, is brings it under control. So if you imagine, it's really based on anti-lock brake technology. So it can sense the wheel speed and it can brake individual wheels.

But what it does on top of that, it senses where the driver is intending to go by monitoring the steering. And if it senses at any time that the car is not or the SUV is not going in that intended direction, it brakes those wheels, as appropriate -- depending if you're spinning out or plowing out -- and then often will reduce engine throttle. And it does it so quickly before a driver often even knows they're losing control. So it's something that the driver that hasn't even -- would have had a chance to respond to.

Prevention

RAY SUAREZ: Well, we have limited experience now. Some of the national fleet has this. You keep the numbers. Do we know whether it really stops rollovers?

SUSAN FERGUSON: Well, actually, it stops a lot of single-vehicle crashes, crashes that just involve your vehicle. And those typically are loss of control that may happen because you're going at high speed or perhaps you're on a slippery surface.

And our data would suggest that it reduces single-vehicle fatal crashes by more than 50 percent and when you look at just those that involve rollover by about 80 percent. So it's particularly effective in those kinds of crashes.

RAY SUAREZ: Those are terrific numbers, but there are, what, more than 200 million vehicles, personal vehicles in the United States. If automakers are required to put it in by 2012, how long does something like that take to really penetrate something as big as America's fleet?

SUSAN FERGUSON: Well, you know, people tend to keep their cars for as much as eight years. So it may take decades before they're in all vehicles on the road.

I think, you know, we're not going to see the results immediately, but they are so dramatic that, when all vehicles have it, we will save as many as 10,000 lives a year.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, a lot of safety equipment has been introduced over the past 40 years. Do we know from experience whether people take to things quickly, start asking for it, have we seen with seat belts, anti-lock brakes, air bags, other things, so that we know how this will eventually become commonplace?

SUSAN FERGUSON: Well, one of the things that happens when people go to dealerships is that there are some vehicles on the lot. And the dealers are trying to sell certain vehicles.

If you package something like electronic stability control with a lot of other things and make it expensive, people probably aren't going to buy it. So I think the best chance we've got is if it is offered as standard equipment or if it's an option, just have that as a standalone. In that way, maybe you can get it for $300 to $500, as opposed to more than $1,000 if it's packaged with something else.

But you make a good point, which is that, when these kinds of technologies are options, they're not always bought at very high rates by consumers, who often will look for the stereo system or the sunroof before they'll think about these systems which they don't expect to use.

Costs

RAY SUAREZ: Does making it mandatory eventually drive the cost down because many more of them are made and many more of them are installed?

SUSAN FERGUSON: Well, yes, obviously, cost is an issue, and the more you have, the less it costs. And what happens with any of these new technologies, they're expensive to begin with, and so they tend to be introduced on luxury vehicles where that, you know, cost difference won't really be noticed by the buyer, who obviously is used to paying more. And it's over time that they're introduced to the more moderately priced cars.

But what's interesting now is we're beginning to see ESC in moderately priced cars, like Hyundais and, you know, Toyotas, so that just the average man on the street will be able to buy it, you know, in a lot of the vehicles they want.

Reckless driving

RAY SUAREZ: Well, some of the big producers have already announced that they'll start including it before the 2012 deadline. Is there something that drivers who are experienced in driving cars without this will have to know about how it handles on the road? Will they have to brake differently?

SUSAN FERGUSON: See, that's the great things about ESC, and I think that's really why we're seeing these tremendous benefits, is that the driver really doesn't have to do anything differently than they've done before. So if you're taking a curve, you just point that steering wheel in the direction. And if it starts to lose control, the vehicle does everything else.

That's quite different than with anti-lock brakes, where the driver had to learn how to brake differently. You don't pump anymore; you just slam those brakes on. And we found, because of that, that the benefits we thought we'd see, we didn't see.

RAY SUAREZ: But it doesn't encourage more reckless driving, more chance-taking, because you know now the car will be able to handle it?

SUSAN FERGUSON: Right. There is always that possibility that people will know that they can drive this vehicle faster. But certainly, when we look at the data -- and we're looking at however people drive with this on their vehicle -- we're still seeing great benefits. So even if some of that is going on, it doesn't seem to be taking away from the benefits.

RAY SUAREZ: Susan Ferguson, thanks a lot.

SUSAN FERGUSON: Thank you.