By Joel Bolton, Project Manager, Gulf States Regional Center for Public Safety Innovation, Natchitoches, Louisiana
The summer of 2007 will demonstrate a familiar pattern for our nation’s roadways and a familiar set of circumstances to U.S. law enforcement. Longer road trips will be commonplace as families embark on long-awaited vacations to see family or friends, or just to view the wonderful sights of the nation Americans call home.
Responsible families will ensure that their vehicles are in safe operating condition and ready for the trip. Every member of the family will wear safety belts whenever the car is in motion. Behind the wheel, the driver will be rested and sober. These families will drive many miles on well-marked roadways with clear zones (to allow forgiveness for some driving errors), signposts designed to break away, and guardrails that collapse in a safe manner when crushed. Family vehicles will have safety improvements developed over the course of decades, such as collapsible steering columns, recessed control knobs, antilock brakes, airbags, and frames designed to dissipate the energy of a crash.
The law enforcement community will be trained and ready, with ticket book in hand, to catch that small percentage that still fails to buckle up. Police officers, deputies, and troopers will pay close attention to the visual cues of impaired drivers and ready themselves to remove such dangers from the roadway. They will monitor speed on streets and highways and take appropriate action against aggressive drivers.
Unfortunately, law enforcement officers will have to investigate crashes in which a driver impaired by alcohol, fatigue, or simple distraction caused serious injury or death. They will witness the aftermath of crashes where injury could have been reduced significantly—or eliminated altogether—by the combination of air bags and properly worn seat belts. Investigators will determine that in many of these incidents, the driver entered a turn too fast or simply overreacted to an emergency situation, leading to the crash.
Just as Americans always drive more in the summertime, it might seem that a certain percentage of crashes will always result from driver error and that this will happen every summer without change. By the summer of 2012, though, things will be different—as a result of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 126.
In issuing this new rule, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that Electronic Stability Control (ESC) will be required on all U.S. vehicles under 10,000 pounds by the 2012 model year. ESC helps drivers maintain control of their vehicle during critical situations through computer-controlled braking of individual wheels. Designed to help drivers avoid crashes, this feature allows the vehicle to stop more quickly or automatically assist the driver in maneuvering around a suddenly visible roadway obstacle. An enhancement of antilock braking systems, ESC is designed to correct a driver’s panicked reactions and to help keep the vehicle under control. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety explains how the technology works:
Antilock brakes have speed sensors and independent braking capability. ESC adds sensors that continuously monitor how well a vehicle is responding to a driver’s steering wheel input. These sensors can detect when a driver is about to lose control because the vehicle is straying from the intended line of travel—a problem that usually occurs in high-speed maneuvers or on slippery roads. In these circumstances, ESC brakes individual wheels automatically to keep the vehicle under control. . . .
When a driver makes a sudden emergency maneuver or, for example, enters a curve too fast, the vehicle may spin out of control. Then ESC’s automatic braking is applied and in some cases throttle reduced to help keep the vehicle under control.1
ESC is a rapidly maturing technology that national and international studies indicate will save lives. When the U.S. secretary of transportation, Mary Peters, and the NHTSA administrator, Nicole Nason, announced the final rule, Nason said, “ESC works, it will save lives, and it can give American drivers and passengers the peace of mind that comes from knowing their vehicles have some of the most technologically advanced safety equipment available.”
The NHTSA estimates that once all vehicles on the road are equipped with this technology, it could save as many as 9,600 lives each year, and up to 238,000 injuries will be prevented. The agency estimates that crashes involving a single passenger vehicle will be reduced by 34 percent, and those involving a single sport utility vehicle up to 59 percent. A significant drop in rollover crashes is also foreseen.
Already standard equipment or an option on more than 150 vehicle models, ESC is currently known by different names, including Dynamic Stability Control, Vehicle Dynamics Control, StabiliTrak, AdvanceTrac with Roll Stability Control, and others. Many manufacturers expect to beat the NHTSA requirement and implement the system across their fleet by the end of the decade.
The future holds many more advances in vehicle safety through the creative use of technology. Crash avoidance systems such as lane departure warning systems and adaptive cruise control are already here.
So what will summer driving safety look like five years from now? Engineers will still be looking for new and better ways to make vehicles and driving foolproof. A few drivers will still be doing foolish things to endanger themselves and other roadway users. Law enforcement officers will still be doing their part by catching and citing such offenders.
The difference will be that technology has continued to improve both vehicle safety and police work. Smarter vehicles and roadways will have reduced crash and injury rates. And officers may have to explain to rookies what “Press hard, five copies” means as they reminisce about the old days when they used pen and paper to issue a citation.■
1Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, “Electronic Stability Control Could Prevent Nearly One-Third of All Fatal Crashes and Reduce Rollover Risk by as Much as 80%; Effect Is Found on Single- and Multiple-Vehicle Crashes,” press release, June 13, 2006.