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In the 2007 Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration report, “Unit Costs of Medium/Heavy Truck Crashes,” the average cost of a truck crash was more than $90,000. If injury was involved, costs approached $200,000, and a fatality raised that to more than $3.6 million.

Crash avoidance early warnings and stability control can pay for themselves by avoiding just one incident.

A couple of years ago, I attended a new electronic safety equipment demonstration. Several vehicles, including a ready-mix truck on a Mack chassis, were equipped with outrigger wheels. They were there not as new safety devices, but to keep the trucks from rolling over when the electronics were turned off.

On the main parking lot of the Route 66 drag strip in Joliet, Ill., Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems personnel marked the course with traffic cones, simulating an abrupt lane change and a fast decreasing radius turn.

The lane change, simulating a car stopping suddenly in front, called for a left turn, followed immediately by a correcting right turn. It was done at only 20 mph, and the drum was loaded with pea gravel and water.

With the electronics turned off, the outriggers were put to the test. The truck initially swayed to the right and then rolled left after the correction. The “training wheels” did their job, and we didn't roll over.

On the second pass, the Roll Stability Control (RSC) system was on and the outriggers never touched ground. There was sway, but no rollover.

Earlier at Bendix's winter proving grounds in Houghton, Mich., I drove a Peterbilt ready-mix truck on snow and ice to show the skid-reducing properties of the new safety systems. With the system engaged, the truck was controllable. With it turned off, it skidded.

The power of computers

The safety afforded by Bendix's RSC and other systems is due to developments in high-speed computers which enable stability control and its variant, roll control. Antilock braking systems (ABS) are the base technology. ABS measures wheel speed, and if any wheel slows or stops more than the others, its brake pressure is reduced.

That ability to independently control each brake allows more than just preventing brake lock. It can apply brakes selectively. Add steering and lateral acceleration sensors, and computers can determine if a skid is starting.

Roll sensors and high-speed processors can reduce engine power and apply brakes to halt the skid almost before it starts. Often, the correction is done without the driver realizing anything has happened. These systems are standard equipment on many new trucks.

Computers also alert drivers and help prevent crashes. Bendix' VORAD, Mobileye system, and the Eagle Eye Obstacle Detection System alert drivers to dangers that may be ahead.

VORAD uses radar to alert the driver to a threat. Some models feature adaptive cruise control that can de-fuel the engine and, in extreme cases, apply the Jake Brake. In Mercedes Benz cars, it will apply the brakes and stop the car. Only driver acceptance has kept this feature from use on trucks.

Mobileye uses image processing to monitor lane positioning. It warns of lane departures except when turn signals are on. Mobileye can be coupled with forward-looking radar for Headway Monitoring, an adaptive cruise control system that adjusts vehicle speed to maintain a safe interval in traffic.

Near obstacle detection alerts the driver to see objects in blind spots and behind the vehicle. Side alerts are activated when directional signals turn on, although many systems use lights alone to constantly monitor blind spots. Back up alerts are active with the truck in reverse.

Paul Abelson is a former director of the Technology and Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Associations and is on the board of the Truck Writers of North America. E-mail abelson@wowaccess.net.