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Stability Control: Cheap Insurance

Commentary by Rolf Lockwood, Editor at Large

Some time soon, if we don’t already, we’ll have a rulemaking proposal that ultimately will put a stability-control system on every new tractor, and maybe retrofit such a system on all tank trailers too, old or new.

I’m sold on both ideas.

At press time, such a proposal was in the final stages at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. First, NHTSA aims to create a technology standard, though it’s not yet clear how it intends to handle the distinction between the two types of stability systems on the market, roll stability control (RSC) and the more sophisticated – and more effective – electronic stability control (ESC).

As Washington Editor Oliver Patton pointed out last August, the agency’s justification is that stability control is effective in up to 56% of single-vehicle tractor-trailer rollovers and 14% of skidding crashes. Those accidents are responsible for 304 deaths a year at present rates, NHTSA says, adding that stability-control systems could save 66 lives a year.

The National Transportation Safety Board recommended last summer that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration mandate the retrofitting of RSC systems on all in-use tank trailers with a GVW over 10,000 pounds. It also wants stability control systems on all commercial vehicles over 10,000 pounds, including those with hydraulic brakes.

I’m sold on the idea that stability control should be required. Yet every time I write about its virtues, especially when I utter that “mandatory” word, drivers respond to say I’m full of you know what. I know there are those in the managerial ranks who think much the same, and owner-operators rightly object to the cost.

Nonetheless my mind is clear. It may well be yet another incursion by bureaucrats into the realm of personal choice, but this is no-brainer territory. It really is, and I’m a guy who absolutely hates rules.

Some folks object arbitrarily in some cases, I suppose, because they just don’t want government intervention in their lives. Many drivers tell me that training and good driving skills are all that’s required to keep trucks on the straight and narrow. I say “hogwash” to the latter complaint, and I’m not touchin’ the former.

Training and skill will certainly make a difference in many cases where a stability-control system might be called into play. The best driver will anticipate danger and slow down, change lanes, or maybe even stop altogether. If he still finds himself in trouble, the best driver might still have the quickness of mind, hand and foot to drive out of it. Maybe.

It’s a bit like cruise control, which can lift the worst driver to fleet-average status. On the other hand, the best driver would lose efficiency if he let dumb cruise take over. Driving for fuel economy is about a lot more than a steady throttle foot, after all.

But the bare fact of the safety matter is that even the best, most careful driver can easily find himself in a situation that’s beyond his skills, demanding an abrupt maneuver that he just plain can’t pull off cleanly. In many cases – we can all think of examples – the result is tragedy. That’s because physics easily overcomes skill at the extremes. Every time. Physics might also overcome electronic gizmology, true enough, but certainly not always.

I’d guess that all the naysayers would think differently if they tried even the most basic stability control. I’ve been to countless RSC and ESC demonstrations going back more than a dozen years, and I’ve driven these systems on test tracks here and in Europe. I was utterly convinced the first time. If you haven’t yet seen a demo, I urge you to seek one out.

You’d do well to look at a definitive NHTSA study published in late 2010 called “Safety Benefits of Stability Control Systems For Tractor-Semitrailers.” Look for it at Just 69 pages and not a difficult read.

At $2,300 or as little as $800, stability control does cost money. But the way I see it, even the most expensive ESC system is cheap insurance.

From the January 2012 issue of HDT.

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