A vehicle control system that has been proven in Germany to cut down dramatically on accidents is available on just 6 percent of vehicles in the United States.
Electronic stability control, a feature on one of every three vehicles in Europe, has yet to catch on among American drivers. Many have never heard of it, and that has prompted suppliers to kick off an eight-city tour Wednesday in Washington.
Suppliers of stability control systems say they hope consumer demand, not government mandates, will persuade automakers to overcome their well-known aversion to added costs and offer the system on more vehicles.
Electronic stability control, which has different trade names, is a system that applies brakes to specific tires and decelerates if it senses a driver is veering off course.
If a driver swerves to the left to avoid an animal in the road, for example, a vehicle with stability control will apply brakes to the outside front tire to prevent the vehicle from fishtailing.
Stability control is different from traction control, which keeps wheels from spinning when the driver accelerates. It's also different from all-wheel drive, which distributes energy to all four tires to increase traction.
Stability control was developed in Germany by Bosch Corp. and Mercedes-Benz and started appearing on luxury vehicles in the mid-1990s. In 1999, Mercedes was the first to make it standard in all its vehicles.
According to a study of German government data released last year by DaimlerChrysler AG, accident rates for Mercedes vehicles in Germany fell by 29 percent between 1999 and 2000 after stability control became standard.
In 1999, Mercedes vehicles were in 15,000 crashes, while in 2000 they were in 10,600 crashes. In 2001, Mercedes vehicles were in 10,700 crashes, the study said. Crash rates for all other vehicles remained steady during that time, the study said.
Spurred by such data, Europe has adopted stability control much faster than the United States.
"In Europe, you have a much more sophisticated consumer that's much more in tune with safety technology, so they are driving it from a consumer demand standpoint," said Bill Kozyra, president of U.S. operations for Continental Teves Inc., which markets electronic stability control.
Some U.S. automakers have quietly responded to European demand. In Germany, stability control is standard on a three-door Ford Focus. In England, stability control is a $1,220 option on the same vehicle. In the U.S., it's a $1,625 option.
Todd Brown, manager of North American brake control products at Ford, said Ford is simply responding to market demands. But he acknowledged automakers could do a better job of marketing the technology to U.S. buyers.
The federal government could step in and require it, but that's not likely. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration spokesman Tim Hurd said there is too little U.S. data to determine its effectiveness.
NHTSA chief Dr. Jeffrey Runge will attend Wednesday's event, but he won't be speaking or officially endorsing the product, his office said. He told a Senate committee this year that he believes automakers will voluntarily add stability control once NHTSA begins a new kind of crash test that will measure vehicle performance in sharp turns. Those tests are expected to begin next year.
For now, the price of stability control varies widely, and it's often included only in luxury packages.
R. David Pittle, senior vice president for technical policy at Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, said consumer demand could spike when NHTSA starts publishing results of new crash tests. In the meantime, he is frustrated.
"Safety is not a luxury. Safety is an essential element of the car," Pittle said.
General Motors Corp. spokesman Jim Schell understands that complaint but says automakers will have to spend years figuring out how to integrate stability control in its vehicles.
"It's not something you can just attach onto a vehicle and hope it works," Schell said.
By Dee-Ann Durbin
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