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Car Stability Rule Is Proposed

September 15, 2006|Martin Zimmerman | Times Staff Writer

Federal regulators proposed Thursday that all passenger vehicles sold in the U.S. come equipped with stability control systems designed to prevent rollover accidents, which kill more than 10,000 people each year.

The proposed rule promises "the greatest lifesaving improvement since the safety belt," said Nicole Nason, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 19, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Auto stability control: An article in Friday's Section A about a government proposal to mandate electronic stability control on all passenger vehicles said the Kia Optima's stability control feature cost $300, plus an additional $795 for required anti-lock brakes. The current version of the Optima offers optional anti-lock brakes for $300 and stability control for an additional $300.

Under the rule, which must undergo a 60-day comment period before it becomes final, electronic stability control systems would be required equipment on virtually all new cars, pickups and sport utility vehicles starting with the 2009 model year.

Regulators estimated that stability control could prevent as many as half of the annual rollover-related deaths in the U.S. By preventing other loss-ofcontrol accidents as well, stability control could save 5,300 to 10,300 lives each year and prevent 168,000 to 252,000 injuries, regulators said, basing their figures on how the systems have performed in current vehicles.

"It's one of the best safety features we've seen in a long, long time," said David Champion, head of automotive testing for Consumer Reports. "Not only will it prevent deaths and injuries, but it also reduces the cost of repairing crashed cars, because in many cases you avoid the accident."

Stability control, developed by Mercedes-Benz of Germany in the mid-1990s, is already available on a wide variety of vehicles sold in the U.S. The technology is standard equipment on 42% of 2006 model vehicles, according to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, including 70% of sport utility vehicles. SUVs, in part because of their high centers of gravity, are especially prone to rollover accidents.

Ford Motor Co. said this week that stability control would be a standard feature on all its cars and trucks by the 2009 model year. The automaker already offers the systems as standard equipment on all its full- and mid-size SUVs.

General Motors Corp., the world's biggest automaker, has said it would have stability control on all its vehicles by 2010. Toyota Motor Corp. of Japan, the No. 2 carmaker, plans to have the systems on all models by 2009.

"This is something everyone can agree on," Ford spokesman Dan Jarvis said.

Stability control uses computers to sense when a driver is losing control. Working in conjunction with anti-lock brakes, the system applies braking power to individual wheels to bring the vehicle under control and keep it on the road. Some systems also automatically reduce the amount of power being delivered by the engine.

"It's almost as if someone is grabbing hold of the car and pulling it back into line," said Champion, who has been road-testing stability control systems since the late 1990s.

Proponents note that collision avoidance systems don't require any special skill or knowledge on the part of the driver to work properly.

"It's like an automatic pilot that kicks in when you need it," said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "All you have to do is continue to steer."

Most of the 100 or so models that currently feature stability control as standard equipment are higher-priced SUVs or cars made by Lexus, BMW and other brands. Making the systems required equipment means they will filter down to smaller economy cars, where they will benefit the younger drivers who need them most, Champion said.

Only about 3% of U.S. traffic accidents involve rollovers, but they accounted for almost a third of the 31,541 people killed in non-motorcycle traffic accidents in 2004. Last year, 10,816 drivers and vehicle occupants were killed in rollovers.

Joan Claybrook, traffic safety chief during the Carter administration, contended that automakers were embracing stability control even though they had resisted other measures that could reduce rollover deaths, such as sturdier vehicle roofs or advanced seat belt systems.

She also questioned regulators' claims that stability control could save more than 10,000 lives annually. Claybrook, now head of consumer watchdog Public Citizen, noted that air bags were initially touted as a way to save 12,000 lives a year. The actual number has been closer to 3,000, she said.

Still, Claybrook added, "saving three or four thousand lives a year -- my God, that's fantastic."

How the systems will affect sticker prices is unclear. The traffic safety administration estimates that stability control and its required anti-lock braking system cost slightly less than $500 per vehicle.

However, according to pricing data gathered by Edmunds.com, stability control systems currently cost $500 to $1,000 when offered as optional equipment. And in some cases, cheaper versions such as the $300 system offered on the Kia Optima don't include anti-lock brakes, which cost an additional $795.

"With stability control being required on all cars, there should be a lowering of the cost," said Karl Brauer, editor in chief of Edmunds in Santa Monica.

In a recent survey, market research firm J.D. Power & Associates found that almost two-thirds of respondents said they would pay $400 to add stability control to a new vehicle.

Brauer notes that stability control isn't universally loved. Some "high-performance" drivers resent the loss of command they have over their vehicle, he said, adding that "some of the systems can be very intrusive."

A list of cars from model years 2005 to 2007 that feature electronic stability control can be found at http://safercar.gov.

martin.zimmerman@latimes .com

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