Whiplash protection

R&D looks at auto design that lowers risk.

April 25, 2012   by Douglas Romilly

Most consumers and fleet buyers don’t realize how important seats and head restraints are in a rear-end crash. Properly designed and adjusted, they lower the risk of whiplash.

In 2005, the Insurance Corp. of BC estimated up to 20% of the average insurance liability went directly to covering the costs of whiplash claims. Extrapolated across Canada, these costs exceed $2 billion per year, excluding an additional social burden resulting from pain and suffering, lost productivity and absenteeism.
Yet existing minimum compliance regulations do not provide an adequate level of safety for a broad range of vehicle occupants. Few carmakers exceed minimum compliance levels, incorporate automatic head restraint moves with seat adjustments, or provide active/dynamic head restraints.

Dynamic systems are typically activated by the occupant hitting the seatback during a rear impact by triggering a mechanism that moves the head restraint to reduce the gap between it and the occupant’s head.
Many of these systems are designed assuming a “typical” occupant or rely on that occupant to initially adjust the system while seated.

With support from several industry partners and the AUTO21 Network of Centres of Excellence, researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) are working on a project that focuses on enhancing whiplash safety by raising awareness and making seating systems safer.

A 2008 study presented at the World Congress on Neck Pain concluded that 35% of serious neck injuries would be prevented if people purchased vehicles with good head restraints and adjusted them appropriately.
UBC researchers are developing technologies that use both critical occupant and collision information gathered through sensors to rapidly adjust the safety performance of the seat. These new systems include adaptive positioning that does not rely on the occupant to position the head restraint. An energy absorbing seat reduces transmitted energy to the occupant during a rear-end crash, significantly lowering neck and head accelerations. Adaptive structures optimize crashworthiness based on the severity of the collision and specific characteristics of the occupant.

Combining these systems with resources to support and educate Canadians on best whiplash protection practices will reduce both the social and economic costs of these injuries.

Douglas Romilly is a professor at the University of British Columbia and leads the AUTO21 Project “Prevention: Reducing Occupant Injury in Rear End Collisions.” Visit

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This article appears in the April 2012 edition of PLANT

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