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Preventing Whiplash

New vehicle head restraints and seat back designs are reducing whiplash, the most commonly reported injury in auto accidents, according to an insurance industry study being released Tuesday.

Traditionally, head restraints have been too low and far from a motorist's head to protect against whiplash in rear-end crashes. But recently many vehicle models have redesigned head restraints and seat backs to keep the motorist's head and torso moving together when the vehicle is hit from behind.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety examined injury claims for those models before and after the improved head restraints and seat backs were installed and found whiplash claims were cut by as much as one-half.

Whiplash is caused when muscles, ligaments and nerves in the head and neck are jerked suddenly, most commonly in rear-end collisions. Pain can last for as little as a few hours, but sometimes persists for years or even permanently.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates more than 800,000 people get whiplash every year, and related costs total $5.2 billion.

Brian O'Neill, president of the institute, said many manufacturers ignored whiplash injuries for a long time, assuming many were bogus claims to get insurance money.

"There used to be a view this wasn't a real injury, that this was just the American legal system at work," he said. "Yes, we've got the fakes and the cheats and the exaggerators, but we've also got people with real injury that can last a long time."

The study examined 2,641 claims from Nationwide, Progressive and State Farm insurance companies for four new designs:

  • Saab's active head restraints automatically move upward toward the back of the head when an occupant's torso sinks back into the seat during a rear-end crash. Some vehicles made by General Motors and Nissan also have the active restraints, which reduced whiplash claims by 43 percent.
  • Restraints in the Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable are installed higher, closer to the back of most occupants' heads. Whiplash claims dropped 18 percent with this design.
  • Whiplash claims dropped 49 percent in the Volvo S70, which has higher head restraints and a special hinge at the bottom of the seat back that allows it to move back during a crash.
  • Toyota's seat is engineered to allow an occupant's body to sink farther into the seat back during a rear impact. The study found a 15 percent increase in whiplash injuries in the Toyota vehicles.
The Insurance Institute said there weren't enough claims for Toyota, Ford and Volvo to be statistically significant. Toyota says its internal tests show its improved system performs as well as or better than other systems cited in the study.

The institute says overall results are encouraging, especially for women. Women have higher rates of whiplash injury - some think it's because their neck muscles aren't as strong - and most of the reductions found in the study were among female crash victims.

NHTSA is in the process of updating its 32-year-old head restraint standard. The agency estimates that requiring automakers to install better restraints could eliminate more than 14,000 injuries a year.

By Nedra Pickler

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