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.

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper is a motoring journalist, offroad driver trainer and photographer interested in anything with wings, sails or wheels. He is the author of four books on offroading, and owns a modified Ford Ranger PX which he uses for offroad touring. His other car is a Toyota 86 which exists purely to drive in circles on racetracks, and that's when he isn't racing his Nissan Pulsar. Visit his website: www.l2sfbc.com or follow him on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/RobertPepperJourno/