Whiplash injuries are costing the insurance industry millions of pounds every year. Elaine Knutt visited the Thatcham research centre to see what is being done to prevent the injury – and weed out the cheats

Whiplash is one of the industry's silent menaces. A neck injury that is poorly understood, almost undetectable and with no agreed diagnosis or treatment costs motor insurers £600m a year in claims and a third as much again in legal costs.

Sufferers can be genuinely disabled by chronic pain or numbness, or left unable to lift a suitcase or perform routine tasks. But an invisible injury like whiplash is also a fraudsters' favourite, especially when no win, no fee claims consultancy is a growth industry.

But the insurers are now fighting back. October sees the launch of a ground-breaking testing programme for every car on UK roads, designed to establish how seat, head-rest and bumper design contribute to or reduce the whiplash effect.

The tests will be carried out at Thatcham, the repair research centre funded by motor insurers. Thatcham has already recruited a special assistant – a US made “bio-fidelic” crash test dummy with a fully articulated neck, the first ever to be used in this country.

“We're pleased the insurers have stumped up quite a bit of cash,” says Thatcham chief executive Mike Smith, referring to the programme's £150,000 start-up costs. “It's a long term major project that should play an important role in helping the industry to control costs.”

The research is to be monitored by the ABI's Whiplash Focus Group, and accompanied by medical research on setting diagnostic standards for whiplash injuries.

Two or three years down the line, the hope is that treatment and rehabilitation will be standardised, and that manufacturers will have adjusted their designs in line with Thatcham's findings.

“Manufacturers should take notice of what we're doing at Thatcham,” comments Roger Charter, head of technical claims at insurer Churchill and chairman of the Whiplash Focus Group. “We want to encourage them to produce seats and headrests that minimise the effect of whiplash injuries.”

And, of course, that helps minimise the number and value of claims. According to Charter, there are 275 000 to 300,000 a year, equating to an average pay-out of around £2,200.

No one knows how many are fraudulent, but Charter has his suspicions.

“There are social factors here, a fairly good proportion come via non-legal practitioners.”

The car tests will be carried out at Thatcham's crash rig, a facility that looks instantly familiar thanks to its starring role on TV programmes like Top Gear and Tomorrow's World.

Slow motion shots of cars crashing into the yellow and black concrete barrier at up to 70km per hour, their dummy “families” flailing in their seats, fill Thatcham's own video library.

Director of research Ken Roberts explains a few tricks of the trade: the £2,000 dummies are given a fresh coat of orange paint before each test so that “contact injuries” with the dashboard or steering wheel can be tracked, while the cars are painted in a special blue non-reflective paint to avoid glare from the high wattage lamps.

The whiplash tests themselves, however, will be different in two respects. Ironically the injury is associated with low speed, rear-shunt impacts, so the tests will involve stationary cars being hit from the rear by a 1,000 kg weight at a speed of 15 km per hour.

Anthropomorphic dummies
And crucially, the “anthropomorphic” dummy used will be far more sophisticated than the ballast dummies in standard tests.

Costing £22,000, plus a further £11-12,000 for instrumentation, the life-size, 80kg dummy will gather data on the head, neck, chest and limb injuries that any human occupant would be likely to sustain.

The whiplash test will be added to the punishing regime every new model goes through when it arrives at Thatcham to be given its Group Rating score – the 0 to 20 index of safety, security and repairability that motor insurers use to calculate premiums.

It is likely that the whiplash test will eventually be incorporated into the scoring calculations.

Roberts, who likens the dummy to a giant Sindy doll, unzips his research partner down the spine to reveal the metal vertebrae and ribs that make it so unique. Each of the seven neck vertebrae can move independently, mimicking the extension and flexion a real person would experience as their neck ‘whips' back and forth.

The dummy and another specially-purchased device that measures a would-be occupant's centre of gravity will be used to take dynamic readings during the test. These will be analysed alongside static data, or measurements of the distance between the back of the dummy's head and the head restraint in different positions.

As Roberts explains, head restraints often fail to provide the protection they are designed for. Most drivers simply have them in the lowest position, instead of being in line with the eyes.

Even if correctly adjusted, many do not lock in position and so can be moved unintentionally, or be forced down by the head during an accident.

“No one has paid much attention to the head rest – in fact, manufacturers have treated it as a head-rest, and not a head restraint,” comments Roberts, adding that there is usually no correlation between how expensive a car is and the effectiveness of its head restraints.

easuring impact speeds
In a first for whiplash research, there will also be a third set of readings, measuring the car's acceleration as it reacts to the rear impact.

“We suspect that the stiffer the car is at the back, the more whiplash you get,” says Roberts.

“Manufacturers already produce foam-filled bumpers, but it may be they're too stiff and need to be softer.”

As with all Thatcham crash tests, the results will be shared with car manufacturers, to encourage them to modify head restraints and bumpers. “Smart” head rests that can be programmed to remember the correct position for each driver could be one answer, and fixed restraints suitable for drivers of different heights would be another.

Whiplash researchers from academia, who specialise in analysing “real world” crashes, welcome Thatcham's contribution to the field. Dr Richard Frampton, of the University of Loughborough's Vehicle Safety Research Centre, confirms that whiplash “is one of the most frequently reported injuries in motor accidents, but the causation and instance is not well understood”.

Frampton believes that whiplash research in this country has lagged behind work funded by insurance companies in the USA and Canada, and that not using dummies with properly articulated necks has been a key problem.

So the Thatcham research programme will be chalking up a number of firsts: the first biofidelic dummy, the first time UK insurers have got to grips with the problem, and the first examination of vehicle stiffness. It's also the first time in its 30-year history that Thatcham has shifted its attention from the safety and security of the vehicle to the safety of its occupants.

The centre's previous research has been highly successful. For instance, in the past five years, Thatcham's research on car locks, alarms and immobilisers has contributed to a one-third reduction in car thefts in this country.

If Thatcham can knock a third off the industry's whiplash bill in the next few years, then the centre's paymasters will be very happy.

whiplash is a non-contact injury that occurs when the ‘cotton reel' vertebrae in the neck are compressed when the head moves back, then stretched as the head tips forward
the fluid around the vertebrae, and neck ligaments, nerves and muscles can all be damaged
symptoms immediately after the accident may include tingling, numbness, headaches, blurred vision and nausea
in serious cases, the spinal column can be damaged, leading to pain in the lower back, arms and legs
whiplash is associated with low speed impacts – at more than 15km per hour, the force of the impact tends to crush the car
whiplash injuries only started to appear after wearing seatbelts became compulsory.
women are more vulnerable than men, because they have more slender necks. Other high risk groups are tall people and the elderly
head restraints should be positioned so that the protective padding is level with the drivers' eyes, and about an inch away from the back of the head