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What is electronic stability control?

Electronic stability control (ESC) is a safety feature that prevents drivers from losing control of the vehicle.

Under European safety regulation cars launched since 2011 are fitted with ESC. The system has been compulsory in all new cars since 2014.

ESC is a a safety system that stops skidding and prevents crashes. It’s fitted to cars, buses, coaches and trucks. We explain how electronic stability control works and helps to keep us safe on the road.

Electronic stability control

Is electronic stability control necessary?

Data and statistics support the benefits of having ESC in vehicles and preventing crashes.

The active safety technology like ESC according to Road Safety Fact.eu “can prevent accidents from happening altogether or at least actively help the driver to reduce the impact of an emergency situation.”

One Loughborough University study cited regularly indicates there was a 25% reduction in risk of becoming involved in an accident.

Another study suggests that ESC is more effective at reducing some types of multiple vehicle crashes.

And usually, having fewer accidents could help to reduce your car insurance costs. This is because you might be seen as less of a risk in the eyes of insurers.

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Electronic stability control is part of integrated safety

An early form of ESC was first introduced by Toyota with their “anti-skid control” system.

It wasn’t until the late 80s and early 90s that ESC became standardised, and more car manufacturers started fitting it in their cars.

BMW, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz and Bosch were all pioneers collaborating on the system.

ESC is part of an integrated safety concept.

Anti-lock braking systems (ABS) are also part of this. So are monitoring technologies that help to prevent accidents by reducing skid risk or loss of control.

The system becomes active and assists the driver when it detects impending danger, such as:

  • Oversteering or understeering when cornering.

  • Sudden evasive manoeuvres.

  • Sudden change in road condition – e.g. icy and slippery roads, or driving on wet roads.

  • Reduced road traction due to driving on dirt, in the rain or on gravel patches.

ESC is a complex system that uses sensors to monitor how the car is being driven. It detects various measures like speed, wheel rotation and brake pressure.

How does electronic stability control work?

An electronic stability program is not a single system, but rather a combination of a car’s traction control system and ABS. It does its job by using a number of intelligent sensors:

  • Steering wheel angle sensor – detects driver’s intended direction

  • Yaw rate sensor – detects how much a car is turning

  • Individual wheel speed sensor – tracks wheel speed

  • Lateral acceleration sensor - measures the centrifugal force (when cornering for example)

All these sensors provide ESC with enough data to take an appropriate action to restore driver’s control.

It does that by applying the brake on the relevant wheels and, if it needs to, reduces the engine’s power.

ESC systems work instantly and sometimes can even go undetected by the driver.

Also, if the driver takes action while it’s active, the system should adjust itself to driver’s natural reaction. But the driver remains in control of the vehicle.

Electronic stability control won't stop your car rolling in an accident though, nor can it apply hard braking or take over steering.

ESC is activated as soon as you start your car, meaning you don't need switch it on yourself.

What are the benefits of electronic stability control?

A lot of research has been done to determine the effectiveness of the stability control system.

According to the European Road Safety Observatory (ERSO) cars with ESC are:

  • 22% less likely to be involved in a crash

  • Up to 38% less likely to be involved in an accident due to wet or snowy roads

  • 59% less likely to roll over – and that’s over 67% for sport utility vehicles (SUVs)

  • 33% less likely to skid.

Due to its high effectiveness and benefit to drivers, the European New Car Assessment Programme (Euro NCAP) added ESC to their safety tests in 2009.

This means cars that aren’t fitted with ESC aren't eligible for the highest 5-star safety rating.

Which cars have ESC?

Most cars are fitted with ESC as standard, but some have it as an optional extra.

If you’re looking to buy a car and you want to know which cars have stability control, it’s worth double checking with the vendor. Or you can check the manufacturer’s website.

Many car manufacturers have come up with their own names for electronic stability control, meaning comparisons can be tricky when you're shopping around for cars. But they are all essentially the same safety feature:

  • Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) – BMW, Mazda, Jaguar

  • Electronic Stability Program (ESP) – Audi, Kia, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz

  • Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) – Toyota

  • Dynamic Stability and Traction Control (DSTC) – Volvo

  • Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC) – Nissan

  • Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA) – Honda

  • Active Stability Control (ASC) – Mitsubishi

ESC systems need to be installed in cars during the manufacturing process and tailored to each model individually. You can't have electronic stability control fitted retrospectively.

What is the difference between ESC and ESP?

There isn’t any difference the between electronic stability programme (ESP) and ESC except in name. It's yet another name for the same safety feature.

What's the difference between ESC and traction control?

Traction control uses some electronic stability control, but focuses on maintaining grip on the driving wheels. Depending on your car, these could be the front 2 wheels, or the rear. If you push the accelerator too hard, or your wheels start to spin, traction control should try and wrestle control of the wheels to keep them on the road.

Electronic stability control tips

To make sure your ESC program is always working as well as it should, it's important you stay on top of your car maintenance:

  • ESC works in tandem with your car's anti-lock braking system. If your ABS isn't working properly, nor will your electronic stability control.
  • Check brake linings and watch for air or dirt in the your brake fluid - both common causes of ABS failure.

Is it safe to drive with electronic stability control switched off?

You shouldn’t turn off the ESC, especially on public roads. It’s considered dangerous to do so.

What do I do if the electronic stability control fails?

The ESC is a complex system using many different sensors to work effectively. That’s why quite a few things could go wrong.

Sometimes the ESC or ESP dashboard warning light might flash when driving on slippery surfaces. This could be an indication that it’s not working.

If the stability control light comes on for no reason, it could be one of any number of components. It’s best to get it checked out immediately by a qualified mechanic.

You could still carry on driving but the stability system might not be active. This means you’ll have to take extra care when driving on slippery roads, and cornering at high speed.