/ Motoring

For safety’s sake – come on carmakers, give us ESC

Tire skid on road

Great news! From 1 November last year, all new cars that go on sale have to be fitted with electronic stability control (ESC). So why are some manufacturers using a loophole to charge extra for this safety feature?

This ingenious piece of kit uses a number of sensors around a car to assess if its wheels are starting to skid. If it detects any slippage, it intervenes, automatically braking or accelerating the relevant wheels to bring the car back into line.

According to one ESC manufacturer, it could eliminate 80% of skidding accidents. Department for Transport statistics also show that cars fitted with ESC have 25% fewer accidents than those not fitted with it.

Why pay more for ESC?

Unfortunately, it seems Fiat isn’t quite the safety saint we’d like it to be. Its all-new Panda, launched in the UK on 1 February (three months after the compulsory ESC date) doesn’t come with ESC as standard. Instead, buyers have to pay more than £400 extra for it.

Has Fiat sidestepped the new legislation? No, we found out that the compulsory ESC rule applies to the date a new model is type-approved, and that was done months before the deadline.

And Fiat isn’t the only carmaker to have released a non-standard ESC car shortly before the deadline. Buyers of the cheapest version of VW’s new Up city car must pay £400 extra to get ESC. We wonder if the VW’s siblings – the Seat Mii and Skoda Citigo – will follow suit?

Why we think ESC is worthwhile

Does your car have ESC? Do you think it’s fair that you have to pay extra for this essential safety equipment?

If you’re in any doubt about the effectiveness of ESC, our 2010 test of the Citroën Nemo should convince you of its worth. The Nemo was put through Which? Car’s emergency obstacle avoidance test as part of our full road test, along with its twin, the Fiat Qubo.

In dramatic contrast, the Citroën skidded and then flipped over, while the ESC-equipped Fiat completed the course without incident. We were pleased that Citroën decided to make this feature standard on the Nemo after our test, as has Fiat on most Qubo models.

So, come on Fiat and VW, give car buyers ESC for free on your new city cars.


Just watched the video – frightening. Of course, it’s typical of a French motor to show us its underparts.
Fully support Which?’s call for ESC to be standardised and included in the price.

I’m not at all sure this is all really going the right way.
Whilst I accept that if some gizmo helps prevent accident or injury it’s obviously not a bad thing I worry however that we’ll all start to rely on these “get out of jail free cards” and drive like idiots.
I would prefer the push towards improved road safety directed at the driver competence improvement rather than directed at measures which compensate for lack of driver ability.

Add to this the fact that systems like this make cars more complex, more expensive and create greater risks of something going wrong which could result in an even worse final outcome.
I’d be happy to see these so called safety aids made available. However I’m not at all sure that to make them compulsory is the right way to go. I think it is just an attempt at compensating for poor driver ability, or treating the symtoms rather than the desease.

On the basis that car electronics are a common cause for problems (failure of ECUs are fairly common and frequent problems with dashboard warning light systems have featured on a recent Which? Conversation), I am not sure about trusting my life to ESC unless it is fail-safe.

On the other hand, anti-lock braking systems generally work well. I am decidedly undecided about this issue. 🙂

Having had a look at the video, this reminds me of a Which? report that criticised a car manufacturer (I think it was Suzuki) for producing small four wheel drive models that could be used off road but tended to roll over because of their high centre of gravity. If we must throw cars round corners, they need to have a low centre of gravity and that is why Formula 1 cars don’t look like buses.

Maybe a better approach is to restrict the performance of vehicles with a high centre of gravity. I appreciate that such vehicles are a great help to the elderly and those with back problems, but hopefully these people don’t need performance vehicles.

Even better, forget the ESC and limit all cars to a top speed of 70 mph and use higher rates of VED and insurance for higher performance vehicles to encourage us all to buy lower performance cars that might help keep death off the roads. Disagree if you want, but perhaps remember my suggestion if you kill or injure someone.

wavechange, I’m not convinced that higher-performance cars are more dangerous per se. The insurance companies already charge much higher premiums for these, and that’s because the statistics show they are involved in more frequent and more serious accidents. But I think that’s the fault of the drivers, not the cars. High-performance cars tend to be bought by the kind of drivers who drive too fast and over-enthusiastically. Surely, a highly skilled and careful driver will drive just as safely in a high-performance car as in a normal one. Besides, high-performance cars have better brakes, wider tyres giving better traction, and uprated suspension giving better and safer cornering.

Also, your suggestion of limiting cars to 70mph can still mean they can do 70mph past a school entrance. So, safety is really the responsibility of the driver, not the car.

There are too many uncertainties there, clint. The highly skilled driver is not the problem, whatever car they drive.

Obviously a car limited to 70 mph could be driven at speed past a school entrance but at least it could be safer on the motorway.

I agree that safety is the responsibility of the driver but from over 40 years of experience I reckon that those in higher performance vehicles are the main cause of serious accidents, and the insurance companies agree.

tahrey says:
10 August 2012

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to communist russia.

tahrey says:
10 August 2012

Also I must disagree with the idea of speed limiters doing anything for private car safety. The EU have already mulled that one over and done studies, and whilst they haven’t outright dropped the idea, certainly don’t seem to be making a move on it any time soon. Those used on trucks are because LGVs take a loooooong time to stop when fully loaded, and it’s still decidedly in excess at 56 of what a car needs at 70… and that’s with decent modern braking systems, suspension and anti-jackknife towing-gear, let alone the rubbish outfitting of older models.

The ones fitted to vans are to save money, maintenance bills, improve the company’s image, discourage workers for taking the vehicles on jollies, and most of all prevent them from getting too many speeding fines addressed to the company. Hence why some are set at 68mph not 70 – it’s *just* slow enough to avoid triggering the majority of single carriageway fixed cameras (as well as conveniently being 110km/h, so they can use off-the-shelf systems).

Ever see how it gets when two limited drivers are vying for position, too?

Plus, it encourages drivers to switch off and disengage, much like cruise control does. Even with ISA (the EU’s GPS-based version which altered the limiter depending on location… presumably they were also going to commit to keeping the database absolutely up-to-date and infalliable somehow, and dealing with signal dropout?), this was a problem. People would just drive around with their foot on the floor and not adapt to changing road conditions as promptly as someone who was in full control – and had full responsibility. Because if you can’t go as fast as you want to go, when you’re able to (and, most of the time, can also do so safely), you’re likely going to instead try and go as fast as you’re *able* as much as possible… regardless of whether it’s entirely safe. Because every time you let off that throttle a bit, that’s a bit of speed, and a bit of time lost that you have no chance of sneakily making back up some other way when the opportunity presents itself. You can still cause a fair amount of damage at 20mph whacking something head-on without braking (… which is probably why auto-brake systems are also being introduced?) when you probably could have avoided it entirely having approached the danger area at 30, slowed right down to 15 or less for that short section, then accelerated again.

(For my part, I’ve driven a Smart ED, with an in-built 100~105km/h hard limiter. Around the city it was fine, perfectly punchy and all that. Get on a more open road, where over 60mph is possible and often legal – and with somewhere to get to with a suddenly reduced deadline that would be easily achievable in a safe, quasi legal (going by defacto rather than statutory limits) fashion without much stress… but now would be a close run thing… and it became an exercise in frustration. So instead of my usual fairly controlled, relaxed cruise, I had my foot buried in the carpet, not wanting to waste a single if I could help it, hunching over the wheel, cutting in and out of lanes and in some cases ending up with a dangerously short follow distance if the driver in front wasn’t entirely keeping up to speed, as I didn’t want to lift off and risk missing said deadline.)

If ESC is available as an option, fitting it would make the car safer but will it reduce its insurance premium? It ought to, but I have only heard of premiums going up when fitting optional extras.

tahrey says:
10 August 2012

It would be the same class of optional extra as ABS, airbags, side impact bars, an alarm, immobiliser, tracker or crooklock. Extras fitted in the name of safety or security generally DO have a beneficial effect on premiums. Unlike loud exhausts, a big stereo, aftermarket alloys, or a power-booster intake.

tahrey says:
10 August 2012

So what of all the intrinsically better engineered cars that DON’T flip over when doing an Elk test? The whole idea of ESC only came about because of the problems the Merc A-class and Smart Car had with the test after all. I’ve not driven any car myself that ever seemed in danger of it… a bit of sliding maybe, for the ones which were on tyres a bit too skinny for their weight (or just cheap), but a properly appointed one, these days (by which I mean, made in the last 10 years) is pretty solid. You have to be cornering hard enough to already feel quite uncomfortable before the tyres start to howl, and then after that eventually start to slip.

Unless of course you hit a bad surface and lose traction. But if the tyres already can’t grip the road, how much hope has the ESC got of being of much more than marginal benefit? ABS is quite a big help (I’ve avoided at least a couple accidents (which would have been non-fault, btw – other people’s madness) using it, and lost a non-ABS car to being unable to avoid someone else’s dippy lane chance on a wet road), but you tend to activate that whilst going from a straight line into a hard-braking turn, rather than having already overcooked it.

I’d be interested to see how an ESC Panda and Up! fare against their non-equipped versions in such a test. They’re small, light, nimble vehicles with a wheel at each corner and – in the case of the Panda – a surprisingly low centre of gravity. The Qubo and Nemo are *vans* – which, for a start, usually means different rear suspension systems. I have a feeling the standard hatchbacks may fare somewhat better.

David Emanuel says:
23 October 2014