MILFORD, MI – General Motors Corp. is taking a multifaceted approach to vehicle safety by working to better protect occupants before, during and after a crash.

Coinciding with the opening of the auto maker’s new rollover crash center at its proving grounds here, the 3-pronged initiative includes the continued development and installation of electronic stability control (ESC), advanced airbags and the OnStar vehicle communication system.

For protecting passengers before a crash, GM is supporting the proliferation of preventative measures, such as daytime running lights – already a staple of most new GM vehicles – and ESC.

“We’ve been working on understanding rollover crashes for many years and our commitment to making StabiliTrak electronic stability control standard on all our cars and trucks is a big part of that,” GM Vice President-Energy and Environment Beth Lowery says at the opening of the new rollover center here.

Earlier this year, the Institute for Highway Safety said nearly 80% of single-vehicle rollover crashes could be avoided if all vehicles were equipped with ESC.

Furthermore, the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. estimates more than 10,000 lives could be saved annually if all light vehicles were fitted with the technology.

To that end, GM says it will equip all its light vehicles with ESC by the end of 2010, with all lights vans and SUVs featuring the technology as standard by 2008.

This initiative roughly applies to a U.S. Congressional mandate calling for ESC to be fitted to all light vehicles by February 2009, says NHTSA Administrator Nicole Nason, adding NHTSA expects to finalize federal requirements for ESC installation in the near future.

For protecting occupants when a crash is unavoidable, GM says it is concentrating on strengthening the structure of its vehicles, while also expanding the use of pyrotechnic seatbelt pretensioners, rollover-enabled airbags and improved rollover and impact sensors, all of which will benefit from the establishment of GM’s own in-house rollover crash facility.

“We know that rollover-enabled airbags can make a significant difference for many occupants who are properly restrained in a safety belt or child seat, and they may help contain the unbelted occupant, as well,” says Bob Lange, executive director-structure and safety integration.

Adds NHTSA’s Nason: “Facilities like this (GM’s rollover center) will help the industry meet the gains needed to improve the nation’s fatality rates (in automobiles).”

GM is focusing its post-crash efforts on expanding use of OnStar and its Advanced Automatic Crash Notification (AACN) system.

OnStar’s initial crash notification system debuted on the ’96 Cadillac DeVille, with the more-advanced AACN first appearing on the ’04 Chevrolet Malibu, the auto maker says, adding more than 2 million of its ’07 model vehicles will feature AACN.

The technology helps accident victims in the crucial “golden hour” after a crash, says OnStar Engineering Group Manager Dan McGarry, referring to the critical importance of having medical responders at a crash scene shortly after the event.

AACN works by taking crash severity input from various sensors mounted around the vehicle and relaying them through GM’s Sensing and Diagnostic Module and onto the OnStar Module itself. If a moderate to severe impact has occurred, or the airbags have been triggered, the OnStar module sends a cellular signal to an OnStar advisor, who then attempts to contact vehicle occupants and alert the appropriate emergency services, GM says.

Elements of the AACN signal include the status of the airbags, the direction and force of the impact and whether there were multiple impacts or a rollover has occurred.

Currently, AACN is available on 42 various ’07 GM models, up from 24 in ’06 and 12 in ’05.

GM’s Lange believes advanced safety systems will continue to become more intelligent and spread across more models.

Among the advancements Lange expects to occur in the 2012-2020 timeframe are the increased adoption of knee airbags, rear seat pretensioners and rollover enabled airbags, along with the development of integrated safety systems capable of discerning different types of passengers by body type, gender and age.

msutton@wardsauto.com