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Stability controls said to cut fatalities

WASHINGTON -- Stability control systems could save up to 7,000 lives each year if they were standard equipment on all vehicles, according to a study by the insurance industry.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that the systems, which automatically apply brakes to individual wheels if they sense a vehicle is veering off course, reduced one-car fatal accidents by 56 percent. The systems reduced all one-car accidents -- fatal and nonfatal -- by 41 percent, according to the study being released today.

The findings mirror those of an earlier federal study.

Institute spokesman Russ Rader said it's too early to recommend that stability control be standard in all vehicles, since researchers are still figuring out which systems perform best.

''But having said that, the evidence is mounting that it provides a big benefit, and if you're shopping for a new vehicle it's definitely money well spent to buy it," Rader said.

Single-vehicle crashes make up about half of the 28,000 fatal accidents on US roads each year. Stability control had little effect on multiple-vehicle accidents, the institute said. The systems can't prevent fender benders, but are designed to help drivers when they lose control on a curve or a slippery road.

Stability control systems are marketed under different names, including AdvanceTrac and Dynamic Stability Control. They first appeared in Europe in 1995 and are now standard on some luxury brands, including Mercedes, Audi, BMW, and Infiniti.

Twenty-one percent of 2005 vehicles sold in the United States have the systems, and an additional 19 percent offer them as an option, the institute said. The price of the systems varies by manufacturer, but it costs consumers an average of $500 to add electronic stability control to a vehicle, according to a coalition of suppliers who make the technology.

The institute, which is funded by the insurance industry, compared crash rates of vehicles with electronic stability control as standard equipment to previous models when the systems weren't standard. They studied crashes in Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, New Mexico, and Utah in 2001 and 2002. When models were compared, they were identical in every respect except for the stability control.

The results were similar to a study released last month by the federal government. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found stability control reduced one-car crashes by 35 percent when compared to the same models sold in prior years without the technology. A 2003 study in Japan also showed a decrease of 35 percent in one-car crashes.

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