Vehicle Safety

What exactly is Electronic Stability Control (ESC)?


When in the market for a new vehicle, safety features should be at the top of your criteria list. One safety feature set to be mandated across all vehicles freshly imported into NZ from March 2020 is Electronic Stability Control (ESC). Known by many different names and acronyms such as ESP (Electronic Stability Programme), we consider ESC as a mandatory safety feature alongside seatbelts, airbags and ABS.

What is it, and how does it work?

ESC is a low cost technology that reduces the risk of a driver being injured in a crash as a result of losing control of a vehicle by around thirty percent. It works in conjunction with a vehicle’s anti-lock braking system (ABS), traction control (TC) and electronic power steering (EPS). Sensors detect if the path of the vehicle differs from where the steering says the vehicle should be heading (understeer/oversteer).

If that occurs, the ESC will intervene in a number of ways. Typically, the vehicle will reduce power — that is where traction control comes in — if the driver is applying throttle. This helps keep the vehicle from making the situation worse. In addition, the ESC system can do something no driver can - it can brake individual wheels with varying degrees of pressure and duration. By doing so, the system can help the vehicle correct its path, and prevent it from leaving the road, straying across to other lanes or even rolling over.

Once optional, now mandatory

Since 2008, ESC has been a requirement in order to achieve a 5-Star ANCAP safety crash test rating. Since 2015, as part of the plan to increase the safety of our vehicle fleet and the Ministry of Transport Safer Journeys goal action plan, the regulations have been gradually tightening on vehicle classes that require ESC in order to be allowed into NZ. As of 1 March 2020 it will be all vehicle classes (new and used) that must have ESC in order to be allowed in the country. This has the potential to affect the popular used import vehicles even more than the recently discussed “1 and 2 star safety ban” proposal.

The NZTA has indicated that the increase in vehicles with ESC in New Zealand as a result of mandating this safety technology is expected to prevent 102 serious injuries and 22 deaths over the next two decades.

We’re not the only country to do this; Australia and the EU started mandating stability control in all new passenger cars from Nov 2011, and Japan the same from Oct 2012.

Has my car got it? How do I find a car with it?

Although it has been around in a few cars since the late 90’s, ESC really started to find its way into popular NZ new Japanese manufactured vehicles from around 2009 and even earlier for some European models. It’s often identified by a small dashboard light icon of a skidding vehicle silhouette. There may also be a button to turn the system off when not required. The Rightcar Used Car Safety Ratings (UCSR) lists vehicles with ESC as “Safer Picks” because they protect other road users, such as cyclists and pedestrians, as well as motor vehicle occupants.

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