While the exact mechanism of whiplash injury is by no means exhaustively understood, enough is known to be able to give good, solid advice on how to prevent it.
In the case of whiplash injuries sustained in motor accidents there is a good deal that can be done to lessen the extent of injury. The Motor Insurance Repair Research Centre, or ‘Thatcham’ as it is commonly known is commonly associated with the testing and certification of vehicle security products, but its primary focus is to reduce the cost of insurance claims to the industry that funds it, and crash safety – particularly whiplash injuries and Whiplash Associated Disorders (WADs) – play a large part in that.
Thatcham is a member of Euro NCAP and conducts a great deal of research into whiplash injury and prevention – through their safety and security research they are also largely responsible for the insurance groupings that are used by UK insurance companies.
The advice from Thatcham and other such organisations worldwide is that the single biggest factor that can influence the extent of whiplash injury is the seat and specifically the head restraint, or head-rest. For many years the importance of the head restraint was not known and many vehicles did not even have them fitted, or they were fitted as an aid to comfort rather than as an aid to whiplash prevention.
These days, all new vehicles are fitted with head restraints however the size and effectiveness of these varies between manufacturers and models – the larger and more adjustable headrests generally providing the better protection. The single biggest factor in the effectiveness of a head restraint is whether or not it is adjusted to suit the person sitting in the seat. Adjusting the headrest properly takes seconds, yet it can protect the occupant from weeks, months or even years of pain or disability in the event of a collision.
Thatcham grades all new car seats as either Good, Acceptable, Marginal or Poor depending on the results of their analysis, both in static tests and also on a test rig that has been built to simulate a rear-end impact. There is also a standard known as “All Good” which is awarded to manufacturers who have seats attaining the Good standard in every model they sell in the UK. At the time of writing the only manufacturers in this group are Saab, Volvo, Audi and BMW.
Adjusting your head restraint
A properly adjusted head restraint should be adjusted so that it is as high up to the back of your head as possible, and as far forward as possible so as to reduce the gap between the back of your head and the headrest itself. The diagram below shows several scenarios and the correct adjutment of the head restraint.
In recent years many motor vehicle manufacturers have invested a great deal of time and money in designing seats which provide superior whiplash protection. Manufacturers such as Saab and Volvo who have traditionally led the market in terms of automotive safety have introduced seats that provide excellent support in the event of a collision, and which offer additional features designed specifically to prevent whiplash injuries. Developments in seat technology designed to protect the user include:
Active Head Restraints
While a properly adjusted head restraint goes a long way toward preventing or minimising whiplash injury, an active headrest such as Saab’s SAHR (Saab Active Head Restraint) system utilises crash energy and the movement of the body to move the head restraint closer to the occupant, greatly minimising the risk of whiplash injury. This system was introduced in 1997 and reduced whiplash injuries by 42% compared with previous models that did not have this technology.
Saab’s system is mechanical and requires no replacment after deployment – it automatically reverts back to its previous position.
The WHIPS (WHIplash Protection System) developed by Volvo and introduced in 1994 has a large, fixed head restraint designed to offer support and protection to drivers and passengers of all heights, while the seat itself contains a special hinge that allows the seat to recline slightly in the event of a rear impact. The movement of the seat in this way keeps the occupent in contact with the head restraint for a greater period of time, minimising the risk of whiplash injury.
The active component in the WHIPS seat requires replacement after deployment.
Other manufacturers such as Audi, Mercedes and BMW and many others are now offering similar systems to those pioneered by Saab and Volvo. Motoring consumers, particularly those with families to consider, are increasingly safety-conscious and so manufacturers cannot be seen to be lagging behind in the safety stakes.
The above technologies, along with airbags, seat belts, anti-lock brakes (ABS) and seat belt pre-tensioners have been have been fitted to cars for some years now and all work together to keep us as safe as possible in the event of any number of possible emergency situations.
Whiplash injuries and WADs are also quite common in sport – while motorsport as a whole has taken steps to prevent it using special collars to protect the driver, this is obviously not practical in sports such as rugby or martial arts. Almost 30% of injuries sustained by rugby players are head and neck injuries.