WASHINGTON—It's taken several years, but drivers finally seem to be getting the hang of how antilock brakes work.
But there still is no proof the technology provides a significant improvement in automotive safety, a new study says.
The analysis, by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, found a dramatic change from the past, one researcher said: Vehicles with antilock brakes used to be involved in more than their share of crashes in which their own occupants died. Now they aren't.
The study compared crashes during the 1996-98 period with earlier research on crashes in 1993-95. In the earlier period, vehicles with antilock brakes were 24 percent more likely to be in crashes fatal to their own occupants than the same models without antilock brakes. Many were single-vehicle, run-off-the-road crashes.
"We are hopeful that this is a sign that people are driving ABS more intelligently," said Adrian Lund, senior vice president at the institute, a research organization for auto insurers. But he cautioned that the change could be a statistical fluctuation.
But even if the reduction in some kinds of crashes is real, the institute's bottom line conclusion is this:
"Despite the extremely impressive test track performance, there is no evidence ABS are producing more than modest reductions in overall fatal crash risk," wrote Charles Farmer, institute senior statistician and author of the study.
It is the latest in a long series by a variety of organizations expressing disappointment in antilock brakes, but at least it offers antilock brake advocates some hope.
Jim Hagedon, spokesman for Delphi Automotive Systems Corp., a major ABS supplier, said antilock brake suppliers have been expecting that public education efforts eventually would lead to better safety results.
Some motorists apparently pump the pedal, defeating the antilock function. Others apparently have panicked over pedal feedback and driven off the road. Some may have been overconfident in the systems and taken greater risks, Mr. Lund said.
Despite the studies, car makers still tout antilock brakes in advertising. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration continues to recommend antilock brakes to consumers. And many insurance companies give discounts to policyholders with antilock brakes.
But the discounts may not go on forever, said Don Griffin, director of business and personal lines for the National Association of Independent Insurers. The group's members have about 45 percent of the automotive market.
Mr. Griffin said insurers remain hopeful about antilock brakes, but they are required to demonstrate to state regulators that their rates, surcharges and discounts are justified.