When you lose control of your car, electronic stability control takes the wheel

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Electronic stability control (ESC) is an increasingly popular auto feature that can prevent rollovers and spinouts. The government is requiring that all cars, pickups, minivans and SUVs have ESC by model year 2012. So, what is it? How does it work? And will it win you an auto insurance discount?

The basics

ESC uses an array of sensors and a microcomputer to monitor your steering and how well your car is responding to it, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). If your car starts moving counter to the direction you're steering, the system recognizes that you're losing control. It then adjusts engine power and applies the brakes automatically to get your car back on track.

In more technical terms, ESC prevents both "understeering" (when the car remains on a straight-ahead path despite the driver's attempts to steer) and "oversteering" (when the car starts spinning despite attempts to keep it on a steady path), according to IIHS. Sensors on all four wheels and on the vehicle's vertical axis detect which way the car is being steered -- and which way it's actually going -- and make corrections.

ESC, according to IIHS, won't stop routine traffic accidents, like rear-end collisions or fender-benders, because these types of crashes often happen before the driver loses control. But if a driver swerves on a slippery road, for example, or the car begins to slide sideways in a turn (the first step toward a rollover), ESC can kick in and prevent accidents.

Does it work?

Many safety advocates laud ESC technology. Consumer Reports, for instance, calls ESC "the single most important safety advance since the development of the safety belt."

But do the results match the hype? According to a variety of studies, the answer appears to be yes. IIHS found that ESC reduced the risk of fatal single-vehicle accidents by nearly half. According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration numbers cited by Consumer Reports, ESC has the potential of preventing 71 percent of car rollovers and 84 percent of SUV rollovers. IIHS estimates that the technology could save upwards of 10,000 lives a year in the United States, if all cars had it.

Insurance discounts

Auto insurance companies take a vehicle's safety into account when determining premiums because safer vehicles will likely decrease the likelihood of accidents, expensive repairs and injuries. Many companies offer discounts for vehicle safety features. Farmers Insurance, for example, offers a discount on collision coverage for ESC-equipped cars.

An important advance, but not a cure-all

ESC does not eliminate all risks. According to its own method of determining safety ratings, Edmunds.com has found that drivers, not cars, are to blame for the majority of accidents. Although many consumers make purchasing decisions based on a vehicle's crash-test rating and safety features, it's their own decisions behind the wheel that can keep them the safest, Edmunds argues.

To maximize your use of this life-saving technology, make sure to wear your seat belt, avoid speeding, check your tires and brakes, and avoid overloading your vehicle, as this can interfere with stability.

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