The Motor Insurance Repair Research Centre (MIRRC) has a new asssistant. He is not, it must be said, one of the great conversationalists of our time. In fact, he – or it – is a dummy, one of only two of its kind in the world, with an in-built computer, neck and spinal cord, and a £150,000 price tag.
This “bionic driver” is set to play a major part at the MIRRC in Thatcham, Berkshire, enabling experts to rate every car for whiplash safety.
It is revolutionising the work at Thatcham, according to research director Ken Roberts. Known as a Biorid (a biofidelic rear impact dummy), its crucial advantage over its predecessors is that it has a proper spine, as opposed to a pipe, that runs down the back.
Rating for safety
The new bionic dummy is helping researchers at Thatcham develop a system for rating cars according to their whiplash safety factors.
The aim is to have whiplash ratings ready in 2002, based on next year's testing of the 2003 models. Four ratings are proposed: G (good), A (acceptable), M (marginal) and P (poor).
Roberts says: “We are talking with the Association of British Insurers (ABI) to try to incorporate a whiplash assessment into the group rating – that would be wonderful. The reason we are doing that is because we have seen how successful it has been with our security initiative.”
This refers to Thatcham's work carried out on vehicle security systems that are evaluated to the UK insurance industry's criteria.
Roberts adds: “When we first started on vehicle security research, it was not in group rating. The moment it went into group rating, manufacturers were hammering our door down to get their products assessed. They see it as a selling point in the showroom.”
He says even a whiplash suffix or prefix attached to the group rating will give underwriters an idea of safe seats.
A new £1m machine is being built at Thatcham to test for whiplash injuries. It will be able to carry out a dozen tests a day without smashing up cars, compared with the two a day currently being tested and damaged. It will more than pay for itself if whiplash claims are reduced.
The annual cost of motor claims is £1.6bn, about half of which goes to the lawyers. Of that amount, 70% (£1.1bn) is material damage, 24% (£384m) personal injury and 6% (£96m) is security-related. But 80% of personal injury claims – £307m – are whiplash-related.
Call for restraint
The new dummy is producing some worrying results. A key statistic is neck injury criteria (NIC). Roberts says this should be no more than 15. When tested at 10mph, the old dummy produced a NIC of 13, but the same experiment with the new model showed it to be 27 – way above the safety area.
With the danger figures so high, Roberts argues strongly for active head restraints that can be instantly adjusted with a single movement. “These showed only a third of the potential injuries on the NIC scale.”
He says the need is for research into head restraint design, evaluation of restraint geometry and to undertake testing under dynamic conditions to evaluate active designs and injury mechanisms.
“We have carried out a series of static measurements to measure the distance from the back of the head to where the head restraint is and also the height of the restraint in relation to the top of the head.
“If it is set too far back, then the head has time to accelerate backwards but, if close, it stops that. We are trying to get manufacturers to build head restraints that adjust very easily with a single, simple action.”
Roberts is also keen for insurers to become more proactive, identifying injured parties, fast-tracking to early treatment and educating the public. He believes specialist physicians are required to properly diagnose whiplash claimants and that there should be agreed treatment guidelines, early and direct intervention, and direct funding to reduce fraud. On the legal side, he wants to see agreed compensation guidelines and speedy claims settlements.
Thatcham was originally set up by insurers to drive down the cost of claims for motor repairs, but the strategy has widened considerably. The centre is now exploring innovative and commercially responsible ways of reducing the cost of all claims. This changed strategy coincides with a move last year to brand new premises on a site next to the one at Thatcham that the centre had occupied for more than 30 years.
Products and subscription services are also available to the public. For example, E-scribe is an electronic data subscription service providing vehicle research data for motor repairers, engineers and insurance assessors. Thatcham Subscription, which already goes to 3,000 companies, provides regular printed updates on the centre's latest work, while there is an electronic parts catalogue to supplement the paper-based parts price guides.
An award-winning media services unit produces information and training videos for vehicle repairers, insurers and manufacturers.
Here to help
There are also helplines providing general advice on repairs and vehicle security. The advice line has a wide range of callers, with most of the information requested being supplied to Thatcham by motor manufacturers.
The centre is particularly proud of its research into security devices, helping to reduce car theft from 15% of all claims five years ago to 6% today.
Although the public uses the vehicle security helpline, nine out of ten calls come from the insurance industry, mainly brokers, seeking to clarify whether a vehicle has a security system or not. Set up in 1997, it receives more than 500 calls a week and has recently introduced an email address (email@example.com).
The training centre is another source of pride – 134 courses for the industry were organised last year. With the growth in sales of motorcycles and mopeds, the centre has also worked with leading motorcycle insurer Cox Claim Management to run a specific repair training programme for its engineers. Moreover, all new vehicles are tested at Thatcham to accurately assess the time it takes to carry out every conceivable repair, so garages do not charge too much for their services.
If vehicles can be made safer, then the escalation of claims can be reduced. Given today's litigious society, it is a battle the good motorist and the insurance industry must win.