ESP - what is it and how it works

You’re buying a used car. You’ve found one you like – in great condition, with 16-inch alloys and a leather steering wheel.

Are you going to ask whether it has ESP? ’Course not. Who cares? Alex didn’t. He’s been driving for five years and he knows about ESP and what it does. We’ll get to the techy bit later but, put simply, ESP (electronic stability programme) helps to prevent you skidding out of control – which is the cause of most fatal road accidents.

It can happen when you go too fast into a bend, when something pulls out in front of you and you swerve, or even when you hit a pothole on a twisty stretch of road. No one is immune. 

ESP (electronic stability programme) helps to prevent you skidding out of control – which is the cause of most fatal road accidents

Even so, Alex didn’t particularly want ESP on his own car. He didn’t see the need. So we took him to Brands Hatch and introduced him to race instructor Phil Brough.

“I get angry at those magazines which talk about ESP being ‘intrusive’ and spoiling the ‘feel’ of a car,” said Phil. “What a load of rubbish. ESP only cuts in when the car has started to go out of control. How is that ruining your fun on the road? It doesn’t brake all four wheels to slow you down: speed isn’t the important thing. It just brakes individual wheels to help steer the car.”

Phil stuck Alex in the passenger seat of a Honda Civic – which has ESP, but gives you the option of switching it off – and took him round a slalom course at full pelt. “To demonstrate how useful ESP is, the car needs to go out of control,” said Phil.

“Trouble is, a Honda Civic is such a good car that you have to really wellie it, building the speed up to 50 or 60mph through the slalom to get it unsettled. That’s why we do this on a closed bit of Brands Hatch: you couldn’t try it safely on a public road. And when we switch the ESP off, Alex is really going to notice the difference… I think he might be surprised.”

Phil then let Alex try the car for himself – first with ESP on; then with it off. Alex proved himself a pretty good driver. With the ESP on, he didn’t spin, even when hurtling through the slalom at 50mph. But with the ESC switched off, it was a different story. First time round the cones and… oops. Round he went…

According to Bosch, which invented ESP, fitting it to every car in Europe would save 20,000 lives over the next five years. But the system can’t be retro-fitted. The only solution is to buy a car which has ESP in the first place.

It’s now compulsory for all new designs of cars to have ESP but, many smaller, cheaper used ones don’t – and they’re the ones that need it most. So, whether you’re buying new or used, ask the question. Does it have ESP? If it does, you’re 25% less likely to die in a road accident. Worth it, or not? You decide.

What’s in a name?

ESP has more than 20 different names, from ESC (Electronic Stability Control) and VSC (Vehicle Stability Control) to DSC (Dynamic Stability Control) and ASTC (Active Stability & Traction Control System). But they all work in the same way to help you avoid a crash.