The number of motorists making claims for whiplash has soared in the UK in recent years. The government has announced plans to tackle fraudulent claims. But is there really a British whiplash epidemic?
The UK has been called the "whiplash capital of Europe". It's said to cost the insurance industry about £2bn a year. For every accident reported, there are 2.7 claims for whiplash damages made. Insurers claim that this is more than twice the average of France, Spain and the Netherlands.
On Tuesday, the Treasury said that the average amount being paid per policy was "out of all proportion to any genuine injury suffered". There will be a crackdown on exaggerated claims, "ending the right to cash compensation". More injuries will go to small claims court as the upper limit for claims will be increased from £1,000 to £5,000, potentially eliminating lawyers' fees.
"There are some people who suffer very badly from whiplash and there is absolutely no question that even without evidence of a fracture or anything else, some people are really quite debilitated by this," says broadcaster and general practitioner Dr Sarah Jarvis. "I also don't have a lot of doubt that there are some people out there who know that by making a claim of ongoing whiplash, they can get compensation."
Whiplash is a neck injury caused by a sudden movement of the head forwards, backwards or sideways. It can cause pain, tenderness, stiffness and loss of movement in the neck. The NHS says that it is usually short-lived and gets better on its own. But a small number of people do seem to get symptoms that can last for more than six months.
This is not the first time that ministers have said that they are going to tackle the problem. Between 2006 and 2013 there was a 60% rise in road-related personal injury claims. In 2011 claims rose despite a drop in the number of road accident injuries. The number of injury claims this year is already expected to top 840,000, according to the UK's largest insurer Aviva. This is a near-record level.
"Genuine whiplash can be a problem but the bigger problem for insurance companies is those who claim whiplash in set-up situations," says Hugh Bladon, co-founder of the Alliance of British Drivers.
Eight in 10 personal injury claims following road traffic accidents are now for whiplash, according to the Association of British Insurers (ABI). It says the medical reporting for whiplash claims has already been "completely overhauled" and that the sharing of fraud data has been introduced and solicitors' fees have been slashed.
"Government figures show whiplash claims have fallen by more than a third in the past four years. Yet still insurance premiums have increased," argues Association of Personal Injury Lawyers president Jonathan Wheeler.
Some research has suggested that there is a "whiplash culture" in certain countries that has an effect on the likelihood of someone developing long-term symptoms. In Lithuania, studies suggest that very few patients experience long-term symptoms after whiplash, largely because of a lack of familiarity with the condition. Studies in Greece show similar results.
What is whiplash?
Whiplash is a term that describes a neck injury caused by a sudden movement of the head forwards, backwards or sideways.
It often occurs after a sudden impact such as a road traffic accident. The vigorous movement of the head overstretches and damages the tendons and ligaments in the neck. Common symptoms include:
- neck pain and stiffness
- tenderness over the neck muscles
- reduced and painful neck movements
After an accident, it can take a while (six to 12 hours) for the symptoms of whiplash to develop. The neck pain and stiffness is often worse on the day after the injury and may get worse for several days afterwards.
In some cases, psychological problems can contribute to continuing symptoms, says Jarvis. "There are some studies that suggest people who attend the GP often, people who have been depressed or anxious or had back pain before the injury are more likely to have problems."
Part of the problem for insurers is that whiplash injuries are easy to fake and hard to prove. Most accidents happen at low speed and involve rear-end collisions.
"Most whiplash injury is pain-led and you can't diagnose it," says Matthew Avery, director of research at Thatcham, the British insurance industry's vehicle research centre. He argues that cases of whiplash are decreasing in countries such as Sweden, the US and Germany because they do not have a "claim culture".
Avery suggests about one in five people who claim to suffer from serious whiplash are definitely genuine. That is not to say everyone else is claiming fraudulently but he suggests half of claimants are "grossly exaggerating".
The Motor Accident Solicitors' Society disagrees. It argues that while the number of deaths from road accidents has been steadily falling over the past decade along with the number of reported accidents, the total number of road casualties - including those not reported to the police - is significantly higher.
It also says car occupancy is higher in the UK and congestion means average UK car speeds are among the lowest in Europe and therefore minor accidents are more common.
"With slower but busier roads and crowded cars, it follows that low-velocity accidents with more minor injuries are more likely to occur in the UK rather than high-speed, more serious injuries," a spokesman says.
The ABI says the government's announcement on Tuesday is a significant breakthrough in tackling "compensation culture". Director general Huw Evans says it will mean lower insurance premiums for motorists.
"If somebody has had an accident and had genuinely suffered as a result, they deserve some sort of compensation but what we don't have any time for whatsoever is these wretched people who set up some minor bump and claim to have resulting injuries," argues Bladon.
However, Wheeler warns against going too far.
"Removing the right to damages for pain and suffering would show a callous indifference to the suffering of people who were needlessly injured by the negligence of others."
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