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New auto rules will require stability control

The federal government is expected as early as this week to require that stability control systems be standard in new cars to help prevent rollover and other crashes, but safety groups worry the measure will not be tough enough.
/ Source: Reuters

The federal government is expected as early as this week to require that stability control systems be standard in new cars to help prevent rollover and other crashes, but safety groups worry the measure will not be tough enough.

Safety interests and other industry sources expect the Transportation Department rule to require a remedy that does not even meet steps domestic and overseas automakers have already adopted, especially for a large part of the fleet with the highest rollover risk. These models include sport utility vehicles.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates it will cost nearly $1 billion for automakers to put minimum electronic stability control systems on all new vehicles.

In stability control, electronic sensors work with automatic braking and steering to improve traction and keep a vehicle moving in the driver's intended direction. It corrects lateral changes before they become fishtails or other movements that could cause a car to run off the road, spin or roll.

Manufacturers of stability control systems include Delphi Corp., Continental Automotive Systems, Robert Bosch Corp. and TRW Automotive Holdings.

The government estimates stability systems could save between 5,300 and 10,300 lives annually and prevent 250,000 injuries. More than 10,000 fatalities, or a quarter of all U.S. traffic deaths, occur in rollovers, which safety experts conclude are more likely if a vehicle leaves the road.

Gerald Donaldson, senior research director for the safety interest group Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, believes the regulation likely will be too accommodating to carmakers and allow those that have not yet installed stability control to opt for cheaper, less advanced options.

"I'd be very surprised if they do anything more," Donaldson said of the government rule.

Donaldson said NHTSA should consider automatic braking, additional steering features or technology to reduce engine power that some automakers are now using.

Joan Claybrook, president of consumer group Public Citizen and a former NHTSA administrator, wrote to the agency that the standard it was considering suffered from "a crippling lack of ambition."

A spokesman for the highway safety agency would not comment on the exact timing or content of the final regulation.

NHTSA proposed in September 2006 to phase in electronic stability control for passenger cars and light trucks, including sport utility vehicles and pickups between 2008 and 2011.

One industry source who is familiar with NHTSA's thinking on the issue said regulators would likely compress their benchmarks in the final rule to better reflect what automakers have already done, but otherwise build little on the 2006 proposal.

The insurance industry and safety groups have urged a more aggressive time frame for compliance.

More than half of all new models and nearly 90 percent of sport utility vehicles already have the technology, safety experts said.

Major car makers, including Ford, General Motors, Chrysler and Toyota, have moved forward voluntarily with crash-avoidance technology.

Dan Jarvis, a safety spokesman for Ford, said stability control is standard on all midsize and full-sized SUVs and is being expanded this year to small SUVs and crossovers, including the Edge.

Jarvis said the company's research has found stability control is a draw for consumers. "We market it directly as a safety feature," he said.