EHRA LESSIEN, Germany – Electronic stability control, a safety feature regulators will soon make mandatory on light vehicles sold in the U.S., could portend greater benefits for drivers and passengers on European roadways, Volkswagen AG research suggests.

“In the U.S., you have more intersections; there are more 90-degree turns,” says Robert Zobel, VW director-corporate research and accident analysis. That means fewer “skidding” crashes, or instances where the vehicle leaves the roadway.

But in Europe, he says skidding accidents account for a majority of the crashes, as well as a majority of severe injuries from crashes. That’s because European roadways, especially those in Germany, are narrower and usually lined with trees.

So the typical skidding event in Europe often leads to dangerous side-impact crashes.

With ESC, however, the technology keeps a vehicle on a forward path. And although it may still lead to a frontal collision, those impacts usually result in less severe injuries.

Volkswagen’s research echoes a 2-year study conducted by Mercedes-Benz. In the two years following the brand’s 1999 adoption of ESC as standard equipment across all its product lines, accidents involving Mercedes vehicles fell 15%.

The introduction of ESC also paralleled a 12% decline in rollovers involving Mercedes vehicles.

In addition, ESC plays a major role in reducing the frequency of Europe’s second-most notorious crash event – skids followed by head-on collisions. Without ESC, those crashes are often lateral impacts.

Zobel estimates ESC reduces the incidence of severe injuries by 40% in such cases.

Volkswagen lays claim to 10 years of accident research that proves the life-saving potential of ESC.

Yet, while the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin., which regulates vehicle safety in the U.S., will make ESC mandatory on all vehicles under 10,000 lbs. (4,537 kg) by 2012, the European Commission has decided to allow auto makers to voluntarily determine whether to make the technology standard equipment.

The commission hopes that will happen by 2012 without it taking action.

The EC, a legislative body of the European Union, estimates ESC could help avoid 100,000 vehicle crashes and save 4,000 lives a year. Europe has set a goal of cutting annual traffic fatalities 50% by 2010.

Zobel says the EU already has witnessed a 30% reduction in recent years and cites ESC as a major factor.

“I would call that a great success,” he says. “We’re also seeing a reduction in the number of single-vehicle accidents, (which) are the largest number of accidents in Europe.”

The ACEA, a European automobile manufacturers’ group, says 50% of all new cars sold in Europe contain ESC, due largely to an awareness campaign it recently conducted. The effort was supported by the EC and the European New Car Assessment Program.

However, advocates of the technology label its penetration rate as “unacceptable.” Adoption of ESC has been particularly slow in poorer Southern and Eastern European countries, because its added cost must be passed on to the consumer.

Vassilis Despotopoulos, president of the European Association of Automotive Suppliers, whose members support the technology, recently expressed exasperation over the slow pace of its proliferation.

“It is unacceptable that so many people get killed on the roads when we have a proven technology available on the market that can save many of these lives each year,” he says.

Volkswagen made ESC standard equipment on its high-volume Golf hatchback in Europe in 1998 and at the same time started its accident-research group, now headed by Zobel.

VW’s cooperation with law enforcement allows safety engineers to visit crash sites and collect data before cleanup.

Law enforcement in the Wolfsburg/Braunschweig region, home to more than 360,000 people, notify the Volkswagen accident-research group of a crash and allow its engineers to measure and photograph the site with a 360-degree camera after emergency crews leave.

The Volkswagen team remains on call around the clock and can respond to a crash site within 20 minutes. In addition to sweeping crash-site views, the team also places a camera in the driver’s seat to photograph cabin intrusions, which assists Volkswagen in designing more rigid passenger compartments.

To illustrate the group’s contributions, Zobel shows a newer model VW Golf involved in a single-vehicle, frontal crash into a tree. The impact occurred at 60 mpg (100 km/h), but the driver sustained only minor injuries.

Zobel’s database includes information from more than 10,000 crashes.

VW’s sister brand, Audi AG, has a similar accident-investigation group and its conclusions mirror those of the VW team.

Zobel says emerging markets represent the group’s next area of critical research. Volkswagen recently established an accident-research team in China, where crashes involving bicyclists and pedestrians are becoming more common as the country rapidly motorizes.

The country also could benefit from ESC, but he predicts a slow pickup of the technology because it is most beneficial outside of dense urban areas.

But Zobel says the work by VW investigators will demonstrate the importance of a rigid passenger compartment. He shows a photo the Shanghai team snapped after a light-commercial truck rear-ended a passenger car. The crash crushed the cabin of the truck and ejected its unbelted driver.

“It should have been a minor accident, but the man died,” Zobel says.

jamend@wardsauto.com