The whiplash lie detector
2:31PM BST 01 Aug 2011
‘I just cannot believe that a bump at snail s pace could have caused an injury like that, says Claire Coleman, a motorist who earlier this year accidentally shunted the car in front while in traffic near her south London home. The driver of the Vauxhall Zafira got out, saw there was no damage and drove off. Claire assumed that would be the end of it, but was astonished to find out a couple of months later that the driver had claimed for a whiplash injury, and won more than £2,000.
There was absolutely no visible damage to either car not even a scratch or a tiny dent, she says.
As Claire discovered, we are in the middle of a whiplash epidemic. Compensation claims for the neck injury now stand at three quarters of all personal injury claims as a result of a car accident. And the insurance industry is convinced that many are fraudulent.
Seventy-six per cent is twice the average for other European countries, says a spokesman for the Association of British Insurers (ABI). It s unlikely we ve got some of the weakest necks in Europe.
This compensation cash machine is having a disastrous effect on our insurance premiums: according to the AA, in the first four months this year they shot up by a record 40 per cent.
But now the insurance industry is fighting back with what has been privately dubbed the whiplash lie detector test. It doesn t measure heart rate, blood pressure or skin moisture, but instead is a sophisticated piece of software into which you feed details of the accident. So in goes the speed of the crash, the weight of the cars, the visible damage and lastly the type of cars. The so-called WITkit (for Whiplash Injury Toolkit) then gives you a probability that the person claiming whiplash injury is telling porkies.
Early indications are very positive, says Peter Shaw, chief executive of Thatcham, the industry s automotive test centre. The feedback we ve had is that it can accelerate the claims process.
Thatcham is well placed to devise such a test because of its globally recognised work in rating car seats for their ability to prevent neck injury in a crash.
So if you accidentally hit a car rated either good or acceptable for whiplash protection (the 2006 Vauxhall Zafira that Coleman hit falls into the latter banding), your car is lighter (Coleman was driving a VW Polo) and the damage was minimal, then the software will flag up the high probability that the person you crashed into is fabricating their pain.
It has to remain a probability because doctors still can t be certain whether a patient is suffering or not.
You re unlikely to see any evidence because, if it s there, it s all in the soft tissue, says Richard Cuerden, technical director for vehicle safety at the Transport Research Laboratory. And that, he believes, is the big drawback of Thatcham s lie detector. It ll be able to say that, for these five per cent, pay out straight away. And for those five per cent, don t. But for the 90 per cent in the middle, we just don t know.
And that s not going to change, according to Cuerden, until we get radical. It s time we did some human testing, simulating a rear-end crash on a sled. You could map out a threshold speed below which we could say, you wouldn t have an injury in a modern car with a good seat. That way [WITkit] would cover, say, 40 per cent of the people instead of just five.
Without an effective test for injury, and egged on by lawyers who take a handsome cut, British drivers are putting in more personal injury claims, fuelling a rise of more than 70 per cent from an average between 2000 and 2005 of 395,735 to 674,997 in 2009. The ABI estimates total fraud now costs the industry £2 billion a year, with compensation payouts totalling £9.4 billion a year. Remove the fraud perpetrated by anyone from organised crash-for-cash gangs to opportunistic students and the ABI says our premiums will automatically drop by £50 a year.
Until then, costs will keep rising, as Claire Coleman discovered recently when her insurance renewal came through: the whiplash claim had bumped up her premium by 25 per cent, to more than the cost of her car.
The Government has given a strong indication that it will ban referral fees paid by car insurance companies to claims solicitors, after Jack Straw, the former Justice Secretary, drew attention to the widespread industry practice at the end of June, calling it a huge racket .
Lord McNally, the Justice Minister, told the House of Lords earlier this month that the Government was sympathetic to the idea of a ban on referral fees and is looking at how to tackle the issue as part of wider reforms .
Investigating the huge rise in car insurance earlier this year, the Transport Select Committee said in its report that over 40 per cent of personal injury lawyers pay referral fees to receive work from insurers or claims management firms .
The fees range from £200-£1,000 per case and reflect the staggering amount an accident victim is worth to a claims solicitor. The report said that fees may be paid and received by insurance firms, vehicle repairers, rescue truck drivers, credit hire firms, claims and accident management firms, law firms and medical experts .