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Will proposed new reforms signal the end of genuine whiplash injury claims?

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For many years it was believed by accident investigators that if there was no damage to a vehicle in a car accident, it was extremely unlikely that anyone in either of the cars would have suffered any personal injury. However, this was refuted by many people who had been involved in low speed car accidents and had suffered neck injuries.

Car accidents that happen at speeds of less than 10mph are often referred to as low velocity impacts. These account for many of the shunts and bumps that happen on the UK's roads, especially in queuing traffic and approaching roundabouts. It is rare to see any vehicular damage at this speed because manufacturers have designed cars to be able to withstand a certain amount of stress so that repairs for minor bumps are not necessary. However, recent research into the subject of low velocity impacts has found that although many cars can survive intact in accidents at low speeds, the forces exerted on the body mean that whiplash injuries suffered by occupants are not that unusual.

Another theory which may have relevance to the fact that whiplash injuries commonly occur from low velocity impacts is that of the startle response. New research, carried out by Jean-Sebastien Blouin, has shown that when a person is startled, their neck muscles can contract excessively, potentially causing damage. The neck muscles contract more severely than any other muscle in the body in reaction to being startled and this may explain why Whiplash-Associated Disorders are focused in and around the neck.

Mr Blouin's study showed that if a loud noise accompanied the impact of a car accident, people showed greater neck muscle contractions than if the collision occurred without this noise. This would suggest that the speed that a car crash takes place may not be as important as if the occupants were startled by it. These findings also offer an explanation for why passengers are more likely to experience whiplash injuries than drivers. Passengers are less likely to be expecting the collision and will have a greater startle response than the driver, who may well have caught a glimpse of the other vehicle before they collide.

In spite and despite of the above the Government plans to recruit teams of whiplash injury experts to weed out bogus insurance claims under proposals to reduce the cost of motoring premiums. The specialist doctors would vet claims as part of a crackdown endorsed by David Cameron and all whiplash claims in accidents at speeds of under 10mph could be outlawed. The proposals were approved by a Cabinet summit chaired by the Prime Minister last month. 

A Government source said: ‘No one wants to stop people filing genuine injury claims. But whiplash is a notoriously difficult injury to diagnose. If we set up teams of specialists in the condition, we will weed out the bogus claims to the benefit of those putting in genuine complaints.’

The Government meeting also agreed to study the ‘viability’ of copying Germany, where the speed threshold for a whiplash claim is 15kph, or just over 9mph.

By road traffic accident expert, Sam Ord