How to prevent whiplash: a guide to adjusting car seat head restraints

How to prevent whiplash: a guide to adjusting car seat head restraints

Most drivers are well aware of the word ‘whiplash’ even if they’ve never experienced the physical discomfort it can bring. That’s because Britain has been called the ‘whiplash capital of Europe’, with 80 per cent of personal injury claims following a car crash involving whiplash.

The government says one whiplash claim is paid out every 60 seconds, and has launched a consultation as it attempts to tackle the problem. Things have got so bad, jokes have been made about the Britain’s drivers having the weakest necks in the world. But it’s no laughing matter.

The majority of whiplash claims are believed to be bogus claims, estimated to add an extra £1bn to UK drivers’ insurance bills – or £93 for every premium.

And according to Matthew Avery, an expert in car safety, only 10 per cent of claims are from people who have suffered serious injury with long-term side effects.

So how can drivers ensure they aren’t one of the few who suffer serious injury from whiplash?

What is whiplash?

We asked Matthew Avery to explain whiplash. As safety research director for Thatcham, it’s Avery’s job to work with insurers and the likes of Euro NCAP to prevent accidents and personal injury, in the process making our roads safer. He has studied whiplash exhaustively.

“Whiplash occurs when the body moves forward suddenly and your head doesn’t. It comes from the fact that you are exposing muscles to energy and the sort of kinematics that the neck is not used to,” says Avery.

“It is a bio-mechanical injury, so it’s not easy to diagnose. You can’t do a CT scan [computerised tomography] or MRI scan [Magnetic resonance imaging]. However, in the most severe cases, you may find signs of nerve and spine damage.”

When did whiplash become widespread?

Avery believes whiplash became a widespread issue in the late 90s and early 2000s. “Vehicles were becoming stiffer as they got safer, safety was becoming more high profile amongst the media and public, and the Access to Justice Act was passed. Those three things worked together to generate some sort of compensation culture.”

How can whiplash be prevented?

Preventing whiplash is all about setting a seat’s head restraint at the correct height and distance from a person’s head, says Avery. The restraint should be as high as the top of the head and as close to the back of the head as comfortably possible – between 20 to 30mm is ideal, says Avery – and touching it is safer still.

“Women are at greater risk of whiplash than men,” says Avery. “That can be due to the seating posture and neck strength. The posture may be caused by something as simple as wearing a ponytail.”

Many headrests can be adjusted for their proximity to the driver’s head as well as the height setting. If a car’s headrest lacks this feature, then Avery suggests setting the seat to a more upright position, as it can help reduce whiplash in the event of an accident.

It’s important that all passengers take responsibility for their safety. Often, a car’s back seats’ headrests have to be raised to be placed in their optimum position. It means that when no passengers are onboard, the driver can leave rear headrests lowered to give themselves the best view of the road behind. So make sure they’re lifted up when seats are in use.

Which cars’ seats are better at preventing whiplash?

Every car crash-tested by Euro NCAP is subjected to a Whiplash Rear Impact evaluation, with the results published here. This tells drivers whether a car is good or bad at preventing whiplash. Avery says that historically, Volvo and Saab led the way when it came to engineering seats with the best possible protection for people.

Testing procedures used by Thatcham

How to prevent whiplash: a guide to adjusting car seat head restraints

In 2005, Thatcham devised and implemented a crash test simulation in which a car in front travelling at 10mph is hit by a following vehicle at 20mph. It uses a sled in a laboratory environment, which the car’s seat is mounted to, complete with a Swedish designed Rear Impact Dummy (RID). The RID is unique for having segmented spines to measure the retraction of the neck. It allows experts to measure acceleration between the head and neck which relates to a Neck Injury Criteria (NIC).

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