Standard Safety Features Save Thousands of Lives

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During a congressional hearing today, Toyota’s ongoing safety issues were once again brought to the forefront. We’ve covered Toyota’s problems extensively, but we believe there is an important issue not being addressed: standard safety features for cars.

When we write a review of any new car, we list the safety features included. Some are more important than others because they’ve become standard or accepted industrywide. One safety feature that will be mandated in 2012 and is slowly being added to new cars is electronic stability control.

Today, even with the technology widely available and in many cars on the road, between 9,000 and 10,000 lives could be saved every year if stability control were added to every make and model car sold in the U.S., according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. When the government announced the timeline to implement ESC in April 2007, its own estimate for the number of lives that could be saved was 9,600 a year.

Most automakers are adding the feature to new cars as they are redesigned to save design and implementation costs. This is likely why the five-year installation window was used. Coincidentally — or not — five years used to be the industry standard for launching or redesigning a car.

Cars like the 2009 Subaru Outback don’t have ESC standard, but for 2010, the new Outback has it as standard equipment. When Toyota redesigned the Corolla for the 2009 model year, it still offered ESC only as an option that cost $250. It was worth the money, but few models on dealers’ lots had it equipped. The 2010 model still offers it only as an option.

What about cars that haven’t been redesigned during this time period? The inexpensive 2010 Toyota Yaris has the feature standard, despite receiving no other significant changes to the car. The 2009 model didn’t have it. The 2010 Ford Focus also added ESC standard, while the 2010 Chevy Cobalt has it standard only on the performance SS model.

Less-expensive models are usually the last to get advanced safety features because of the cost of developing those features. Still, there have been enough examples of ESC being added to existing affordable models to illustrate that it can be done with little harm to sales.

If the government had shortened the mandatory window by just one year, thousands of lives could have been saved. And at the beginning of 2010, it’s more than clear that every car sold in the U.S. today could have ESC as standard equipment.

There may not be public outrage for something that sounds as boring as electronic stability control, but it is one thing consumers can completely control. We continue to advise shoppers to buy cars with ESC and other safety features as added assurance they’re getting into a safer car. This is one way consumers can arm themselves during their car-shopping process, with or without government intervention.

Photo of David Thomas
Former managing editor David Thomas has a thing for wagons and owns a 2010 Subaru Outback and a 2005 Volkswagen Passat wagon. Email David Thomas

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