An electronic stability program, also called electronic stability control, can help keep your car on course in slippery conditions or emergency maneuvers by selectively applying one or more of the brakes to control or prevent a skid. By doing so, the system can also help steer the car in the desired direction. Many systems also reduce the throttle as needed.
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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that ESC has saved thousands of lives since its inception. ESC is always accompanied by antilock brakes, which minimize skidding while braking, and traction control, which prevents drive wheels from spinning upon acceleration — but the systems aren't synonymous.
Federally required on all new passenger cars sold in the U.S. since September 2011, the system is capable of applying and releasing individual brakes in fractions of a second. Some drivers might not even notice stability control in action. The only indication the system is at work is typically a slight vibration in the steering wheel or brake pedal, and possibly a warning light on the dashboard.
Most systems can be turned off or limited in their functionality by using a switch on the dashboard or console. This can help in some conditions, such as trying to free a vehicle from a snowbank or icy parking spot where ESC and the associated traction control might be a disadvantage. But experts advise against driving with the system disabled.
While ESC has been required since 2011, manufacturers began phasing it in a few years earlier, though automakers have used a number of names for their proprietary systems. For example, Ford uses AdvanceTrac, while GM goes with StabiliTrak. If you're shopping for a pre-2012 used car, make sure that yours has it — whatever it's called. For shoppers, NHTSA has compiled a list of pre-2012 vehicles with electronic stability control.
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