Image: Car on road © Brand X, SuperStock

You are driving down a lonely back road.

Your car hits a patch of black ice and begins to slide out of control. As you struggle to remember what to do, the car takes over, stops the slide and prevents you from slipping off the road.

This is not the future. Electronic stability control already prevents thousands of accidents a year, and beginning Sept. 1, it became standard on every new car built for sale in America.

Experts everywhere agree that ESC saves lives. Insurance companies offer a discount for vehicles so equipped. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that if every vehicle on the road had ESC, fatal accidents would be reduced by 10,000 per year. Its 2010 study found that ESC reduces fatal crash involvement on average 33% -- a 20% reduction for multiple-vehicle crashes and 49% for single-car crashes.

It is a game-changing technology.

David Champion, the director of automotive testing at Consumer Reports, says, "If you are looking at the best ways to prevent deaths, seat belts are still No. 1, ESC is a close second and air bags are a distant third."

ESC is very effective at preventing rollovers

ESC has proved to be extremely effective at preventing rollovers in both SUVs and passenger cars. IIHS research shows that ESC can reduce the risk of fatal single-vehicle rollovers by 75% for SUVs and 72% for cars.

Federal research concurs. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that ESC can prevent 85% of SUV rollovers and 64% of car rollovers.

"Drivers of SUVs are now among the least likely to die in crashes," says Russ Rader, spokesman at IIHS. "This is a big change from just a few years ago."

Many experts think that ESC is even more important for teen drivers. If you have teen drivers in the house, putting them in an ESC-equipped car will not only save money on car insurance, but it may possibly save their lives.

"Excessive speed and loss of control are two of the biggest factors in teen accidents," Champion notes. "ESC helps them with both of these factors."

Champion is so impressed with ESC that he predicts that the eventual transition of all teens into ESC-equipped cars will bring up to a 60% reduction in fatal teen accidents.

How ESC prevents auto accidents

How does ESC work? A microcomputer monitors signals from sensors, checking 25 times a second whether the steering input correctly corresponds to the direction that the car is moving. When it detects the vehicle moving in the wrong direction, it immediately reacts, strategically applying the brakes and reducing engine torque to put the car back on the desired path.