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Genuine whiplash claims reduced by new car seat designs

Tristan Honeywill

Back in the late 1990s insurers were already starting to suffer hurt from an epidemic in whiplash claims. Back then they reached 300,000 whiplash claims a year for the first time and everybody could see it was stupid: the number of accidents was decreasing and the vehicle fleet was getting safer year by year.

whiplash claims between 1997 and 2012Nonetheless whiplash claims have continued to rise quickly. In 2012, UK insurers reported there were around 650,000 claims. Over the past 10 years the risk of being killed or seriously injured in an accident is around 40%, yet somehow whiplash has become twice as bad.

So what can insurers do? When it comes to bogus claims, not much. However, they have spent a lot of time on helping to prevent genuine whiplash injuries. Thatcham, the insurers’ automotive research organisation, now works with Euro NCAP to test every new car’s seats for whiplash protection. Their recommendations have helped make whiplash injuries much less likely in new vehicles.

What is whiplash?

Whiplash injuries occur when your car is hit from behind, explains Thatcham’s Head of Research, Matthew Avery: “Your car suddenly accelerates forward, along with your seat and your body. But if your head restraint isn’t in position, your head is unsupported and your neck distorts into an S-shape as it tries to catch up.” Painful and hard to treat.

How do you prevent whiplash?

The headrestraint is what helps protect people against whiplash. “The head restraint needs to be as tall as the back of the head and as close to the back of the head as possible,” says Avery. “Cars with good, tall head restraints have lower claim rates. Head restraints that are either not adjusted properly or that are hard to adjust tend to have higher claim rates.”

How do new cars offer better whiplash protection?

Thatcham and Euro NCAP have been working together to encourage manufacturers to fit good head restraints. They check their size and shape and how well the seat and head restraint work together in a crash scenario using a special crash test dummy, BioRID, which has a segmented spine and neck.

Once they were being tested, car designers soon realised that just by allowing the person to sink into the seat a little during a collision, you can keep the head and neck together. This and a good head restraint design is all it takes to reduce the risk of whiplash injuries, says Avery.

You need a seat that’s big and strong enough to do that. Some small city cars and budget models don’t have enough space to do this well enough, so it’s worth checking Euro NCAP’s crash test ratings before buying.

whiplash dummy in seat

“The head restraint needs to be as tall as the back of the head and as close to the back of the head as possible”

Matthew Avery, Thatcham’s Head of Research 
Does the seat’s whiplash rating help to reduce the insurance premium?

Unfortunately, a good whiplash rating doesn’t mean cheaper car insurance. Whiplash is almost always a third party claim: if you’re hit from behind, it’s the other person’s policy that pays the bill.

However, cars fitted with Autonomous Emergency Braking are less likely to inflict whiplash injuries on other drivers. Because they are lower risk for insurers, they are rewarded with discounts.

How does the seat design figure in the claim process?

The seat design is not considered in any part of the claim process. “It’s really more about the credibility of the medical report or witnesses,” says Avery. “There are so many claims that they don’t take into account the seat design in the vehicle.”

They may not have cured the UK of its bogus claims habit, but the work by Thatcham, Euro NCAP and car makers to introduce better seats has reduced the risk of whiplash and saved many thousands of people from a lot of genuine suffering. “Figures from the US, Germany and Sweden indicated that there has been a 40% reduction in claims for serious whiplash injuries where the symptoms last for more than a month,” says Avery.

So far all the focus has been on the front seats of cars, but plans are underway to promote better rear seats as well.

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