Last month the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) published a proposal to mandate the installation of Electronic Stability Control (ESC) on large trucks. Based on research they've determined that such a system can be 28 to 36 percent effective in reducing rollovers and 14 percent effective in eliminating loss-of-control crashes. Those are pretty impressive numbers in what are usually costly crashes with a high potential for injury or death.
Two types of stability control systems have been developed for heavy vehicles. A roll stability control (RSC) system is designed to prevent rollover by decelerating the vehicle using braking and engine torque control. The other type of stability control system is Electronic Stability Control (ESC), which includes all of the functions of an RSC system plus the ability to mitigate severe over steer or under steer by automatically applying brake force at selected wheel-ends to help maintain directional control of a vehicle. This is the type of system that they propose to mandate.
This is not a new technology. In fact, this year about one fourth of new truck tractors and 80 percent of new buses affected by this proposed rule will be equipped with ESC systems. The industry now has a growing array of electronic features that will not only aid the driver but also take control to avoid undesired consequences. For some time now we've had anti-lock brakes. You can even purchase cruise control that monitors following distance and will take action when the truck begins to close in on the vehicle ahead.
From a safety perspective it's certainly hard to argue against these devices and others yet to be developed. They absolutely have a positive impact. But is there another impact on the driver? When ABS brakes became standard it was possible to simply step on the brake and hold it down regardless of road conditions. Veteran truck drivers had a hard time with that since they learned to drive in the days when wheel lock up could potentially end in a jackknife and pumping or stabbing the brakes was ingrained. But change is inevitable and we all adapted.
The larger question is what is the effect of these electronic devices on the driver? Does today's drivers know what to do if the ABS system isn't totally functional? Will electronic stability control lead to drivers less in tune to their speed when entering a curve or freeway ramp? No, we don't want to return to the good old days when trucks had no power steering and were driven totally by seat of the pants feel. On the other hand, let's not abandon the training issues that were addressed years ago.
Today's trucks may make the driver's job easier and even prevent a crash, but it's equally important to make certain that today's drivers still know how to handle the vehicle without electronic intervention. That's the only way to ensure that your driver won't overdrive his or her abilities.