The case for turning stability control off

Australia has mandated stability control be fitted to all new cars, yet some people insist on disabling it. Are they right?

THERE IS A HUGE BODY OF RESEARCH to prove that airbags, seatbelts and electronic stability control (ESC) are three of the most important safety features on modern cars.  ESC is there to help stop you losing control of the car, airbags provide a cushion so you don’t bounce off hard materials during a crash, and seatbelts keep you inside the car, located where the airbags can do their best work. Incidentally, that’s why all airbags are known as “SRS”, which means Supplementary Restraint System, or supplementary to the seatbelt. 

Very few people these days would be stupid enough to drive without a seatbelt, and even fewer would be next-level stupid enough to disable airbags. Yet some drivers, often male and young in faster cars, routinely disable stability control when driving on public roads.

I’ve asked quite a few why, and the common theme to the answer is a desire for more control over the car and greater speed, a feeling of breaking free from restriction. And both reasons are true; switch it off and you can go faster because you have more control, although there is a caveat – you must have the necessary skills to exploit that freedom of control.

Yet despite being literally a paid-up petrolhead, I fundamentally disagree with switching ESC off on public roads, and would even go so far as to argue that insurance should be invalidated if it is found to be disabled and leaving it enabled could have avoided or mitigated the crash. 

The simple fact is that ESC helps avoid crashes – reducing light vehicle fatalities by 6%, according to the Government – so disabling it is as dumb as driving without seatbelts, or disabling your airbags.

The reason ESC is so effective is simple – nobody in the history of driving can control a car like the ESC computers. They never tire, are always alert, have reactions quicker than any human, and can brake each wheel individually, something no human can do. Anyone that says they don’t need, or could do as good as job as ESC is an idiot.

So let’s look at the reasons cited for disabling ESC – control and speed.

It is true that ESC, at least in the calibration for on-road use, will not let you drive as fast as if it was disabled or set to sport mode. The reason is something called slip; any time a vehicle is cornering it is, ever so slightly, sliding. Yes, even grandpa in the Camry. The faster you drive, the greater the slip, and there’s an optimum slip level for every car, tyre and surface – too little and you’re slow, too much and you’re slow but spectacular. ESC, by design, doesn’t let cars get to their optimum slip level for maximum speed on any surface, so yes it is slower.

But it’s only a little bit slower, and on public roads you should not approach the limits of traction like you do on a racetrack. There is other people’s property and lives to consider. So ESC should never be a limiting factor, and if it does kick in, then chances are you’re not being smooth enough with the controls, or your technique is wrong. I can speak from some experience here, having spent a bit of time in the left seat instructing on racetracks with “ESC all off on public roads” enthusiasts. We leave it on, and find that what they thought was the limit with it off is actually lower than the limit with it on.

Even if you are an expert, you should leave ESC on. The pleasure of driving a sports car on public roads should come from how precisely and smoothly you execute your driving, not the thrill of on-the-limit car control where you balance the car on the edge of adhesion. If that’s what you want, then you’ll find that every day of every weekend there’s at least two grass-roots motorsports events for you to enjoy in stock-standard sportscars.

And what about sports modes? These are modes that desensitive the ESC operation so it intervenes later and less aggressively. They are sometimes combined with throttle and automatic gearshift remaps. My view here is that if the ESC sport mode only affects ESC, then it’s generally not worth using as sportscars tend to have slightly more permissive ESC than the equivalent non-sportscar. However, if you can only get the sharper throttle response and other modes by putting ESC into sport mode, and you find those modes to be useful, then use the sports modes.

There are still times to switch the electronics off and most notably that is when driving offroad or in deep snow. Even high speed dirt road driving should be done with ESC on.

But regardless of your car’s electronics, it’s not worth the risk of disabling ESC.  If you’re a passenger in a car and the driver disables it, react in the same way as if they attempted to drink-drive or removed their seatbelt. You never know when you’ll need ESC to save your life.

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  1. Dean
    December 19, 2016 at 6:54 am — Reply

    I’ve been seriously debating what to for gravel and other loose surface driving. I find vehicles constantly second guessing the way I set up for bends and corners. It can be quite scary having a car trying to straighten you up, straight into a tree.
    I always drive forest roads as if there’s a car or truck about to appear in the other direction, but I feel like DSC/ESC is making open, high visibility corners much less predictable for me.
    Would you still say I should modify my driving style? Or lobby for “gravel mode”?

    • December 19, 2016 at 8:00 am — Reply

      I have never had a problem with ESC on with 4WDs and dirt roads. However I do always drive part time 4WDs in 4WD on dirt roads.

      The gravel mode on some 4WDs is too nanny state for my liking.

      I would switch ESC off for slower speed really slippery tracks though.

      • Dean
        December 19, 2016 at 8:44 am — Reply

        Thanks – maybe it’s from growing up driving front wheel drives on dirt roads but I always feel more comfortable with a shade of oversteer, and the 2012 Hilux, even in 4wd, bites quite savagely. The Rangie Sport seems to most dislike understeer which is pretty common with 2.6t heading into a tight corner!

        • December 19, 2016 at 8:49 am — Reply

          ESC hates understeer. It is actually possible to get a car into a slight four wheel drift with all tyres squealing and not have ESC kick in if you are smooth enough. Also ensure you are unwinding lock as you accelerate.

  2. Andrew Riles
    December 19, 2016 at 8:40 am — Reply

    I have spent the majority of my driving owning cars without airbags, let alone ABS or ESC, and wondered for a long time how much they would actually benefit me….though looking back now, I can think of a number of situations it would have helped, and one that it probably couldn’t have done much at all (four wheel slide on a gravel road)….there’s also been a couple of times where I’ve corrected a (work) car from a slide before the ESC kicked in, which caused me to question further the need for it….

    We now own a car with ESC, and I don’t feel the need to switch it off, simply because it very rarely intervenes, though when it does, the calibration is so good for the most part it actually helps me, particular the way the traction control seems to keep the car right on the limit of adhesion to allow max acceleration for the conditions….

    I’d love to take our car to a skidpan though….just to see what the system can and can’t do, and how much better it is than me at controlling the vehicle…..

    • December 19, 2016 at 8:52 am — Reply

      Older ESC systems are not as good as modern ones. In some less sensitive modes a good driver can correct before the car. Some 4WDs de sensitive ESC when in 4WD too.

      • Andrew Riles
        December 19, 2016 at 9:56 am — Reply

        I have definitely noticed that…..drove a lot of 2005-2010 vehicles for work a while back, and some of the systems then were slower and more intrusive compared to our 2013 Mazda 3, though the ABS calibration doesn’t inspire confidence for heavy dirt road braking…in your experience are SUVs and 4WDs better than 2WD sedans and hatches for dirt road braking where ABS is required??

        • December 19, 2016 at 10:50 am — Reply

          Yes it is better on 4WD vehicles which now often have dirt road modes for ABS. I can’t paste the link but read on our site the Amarok dirt road stop test.

          • Andrew Riles
            December 20, 2016 at 6:24 am

            Thx Robert…..I suspected this might be the case, it’s good to know for certain….

  3. dilligaf
    December 20, 2016 at 5:46 pm — Reply

    Sometimes people use their ESC to complement bad driving skills. If your ESC is constantly being activated, then you need to pay more attention to your driving.

    In the event of having to take avoiding action, ESC can be a life saver.

  4. Stiglet
    January 7, 2017 at 12:02 pm — Reply

    ESC can be very scary when it cuts in when the driver isn’t familiar with it.
    Lights which have only been seen at startup. I forget the exact reaction but, familiar road & travelling at what had always been a safe speed previously.

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Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper