Whiplash safety

Posted on November 29th, 2013 by GEM Motoring Assist

Whiplash testing is now part of the Euro NCAP vehicle testing protocol. A frequently occurring condition resulting from ‘rear end shunts’, whiplash is responsible for millions of pounds of lost working time every year, and can seriously affect the quality of life for any motorist or occupant who has been hit in a collision. So, when we make buying choices, should whiplash protection come into the equation? And are there ways of minimising the effects of a rear-end shunt?

What is whiplash?
Whiplash is the term used to describe the neck pain which occurs after the soft tissue in the spine has been stretched and strained when the body is thrown in a sudden, forceful jerk. Whiplash is normally caused by a rear-end motor collision, when the resulting deceleration causes the spinal movement which can result in whiplash. However, it can also occur in front and side impacts (and similar injuries have been seen in high divers). In fact, whiplash can be the result of any activity which causes the neck to move beyond its normal range. Surprisingly, a car need not be travelling very fast to cause whiplash, in fact, these injuries can be sustained at as low a speed as 10mph.

What are the symptoms of whiplash?
Mild symptoms involve stiffness and tenderness of the muscles in the upper back and neck, headaches and dizziness. Such cases are classed as short term and can last anything up to three months. More serious, long term cases can involve permanent impairment, neurological and musculoskeletal injures. Whiplash is difficult to diagnose and treat, but a doctor or hospital should be alerted if the injured person experiences memory loss or periods of unconsciousness after a collision. This is especially the case if there is also severe pain in the back of the head, pins and needles in the shoulders and arms, or a sensation of heaviness in the arms.

What is whiplash syndrome?
A small number of people develop what is known as whiplash syndrome. They suffer continual headaches and pain, reduced movement at the back of the neck, tingling in the arms, lumbar pains, fatigue, sleep disruptions and reduced libido.
Whiplash syndrome is very difficult to treat. The main aim is to prevent any further strain and encourage a quick return to normal everyday activities.
Unfortunately, in a very small number of people who have experienced a severe whiplash injury, symptoms can persist for months or even years before settling and even then there can even be residual long-term neck discomfort.

How is whiplash diagnosed and treated?
Usually the diagnosis is made on the basis of the background of the injury and the patient’s description of symptoms. Whiplash cannot be seen on an MRI scan, CT scan or X-ray, although an X-ray is taken if there is a suspicion of fracture or dislocation of the cervical spine.

There is no single treatment for whiplash that is widely accepted among doctors, but if there is no suspicion of a fracture or dislocation, the patient should begin exercising and pursuing normal activities as soon as possible. People who rest for long periods and wear a collar are likely to have a much slower recovery time than those who keep active. In some cases it may be necessary to supplement an exercise programme with painkillers and anti-inflammatories.

In the first 24 hours after the injury, an ice bag, (or bag of frozen peas), wrapped in a towel and applied to the neck will help to relieve inflammation. The ice bag should only be used for 20 minutes at a time.

Advice on exercise and recovery can be sought from a physician or physiotherapist. For most people the injury will simply pass after a short period.

What is the extent and cost of the whiplash problem?
The Association of British Insurers (ABI) estimates that more than 432,000 people make a whiplash claim every year – that’s around one in every 140 people in the UK. These injuries amount to nearly £2bn per year in compensation payments, accounting for 20% (around £66) of the typical car insurance premium. Apart from the physical cost, in terms of pain and suffering, to the injured person, there is also the resulting cost of lost productivity in the workplace, and the cost of medical care. Even if every person with a whiplash injury simply visits their GP, the Government pays around £18 for each consultation, adding up to approximately £8m a year.

How do we tackle the whiplash problem?
There are three main areas to address in order to reduce the number of people suffering whiplash injuries:

  • Driver behaviour – Rear-end shunts, which most often result in whiplash, are most commonly caused by tailgating.
  • Correct use of head restraints/rests – Thatcham research found that three quarters of drivers do not adjust their head restraints properly. A correctly fitted head restraint can reduce the chance of sustaining a whiplash injury by 24%. The top of the head restraint should be level with the top of the head, and as close to it as possible.
  • Car seat design – In recent years, vehicle bodies have become much stiffer, increasing overall crashworthiness. This helps reduce the incidence of serious injuries, but may increase the incidence of whiplash. This effect can be offset by whiplash prevention systems. Research has shown that people in cars fitted with advanced whiplash prevention systems have a 50% lower risk of sustaining long-term whiplash injuries than those in other cars.

What have the car manufacturers done to protect vehicle occupants more effectively?
According to Euro NCAP, (the body responsible for safety-testing cars), not enough! During 2008, Euro NCAP carried out the first round of its rear-impact safety testing program, and discovered that there is still a long way to go before the majority of cars offer a good standard of protection against whiplash injuries.
However, some car manufacturers do have ‘whiplash prevention systems’ built in to their seat design. The four most common systems are:

  • Reactive head restraints that automatically move up and forward during a collision, triggered by the occupant’s weight transfer in a crash, (eg. used by Saab).
  • Proactive head restraints that automatically move up and forward at the start of the collision, triggered by crash sensors on the bumper or within the car, (eg. used by Mercedes).
  • Reactive seat protection in which the entire seat and head restraint absorb the energy of a rear-end collision, (eg. Volvo’s WHIPS).
  • Passive seat protection that absorbs the energy of the collision, and allows the occupant to make contact with the head restraint without neck distortion, (eg. Audi’s ‘Backguard’ system).

How is whiplash protection measured?
Euro NCAP has integrated a new rear impact test, specifically to rate cars for whiplash protection, into its crash test programme. The test procedure has been developed to take into account both the geometrical aspects of the seat, the size and shape of the head restraint, its proximity to the occupant, and its dynamic performance during an actual crash test. This dynamic performance is assessed using a seat mounted on a test sled, subjected to low, moderate and higher test severities representing a range of crash forces causing injury. Cars are then given a good (green), marginal (orange) or poor (red) rating. Some of the seats that received Euro NCAP’s worst result, with a ‘poor’ or ‘red’ score, provided protection at the lower test severity, but achieved a zero score at the higher test severity.

The results for the first round of this new test were released in February 2009, and the rear impact, or whiplash, test is now part of the overall assessment of adult occupation protection.

For further information on whiplash crash testing, and to see the results for different cars, go to Euro-NCAP and Thacham.