It Was Only a Fender Bender, You Can’t Be Hurt: The Myth of Low-Velocity Impact and Injury

Despite considerable research to the contrary, there remains widespread skepticism that low-velocity impact can really produce injuries capable of causing significant pain and functional loss. Insurance companies have historically looked at extent of vehicular damage and tried to arbitrarily tie it to a predictive model for gauging bodily injury.

In 2010, Brian Stemper and Steven Storvik, biomechanical engineers at the University of Wisconsin, published their own predictive model to provide doctors with a better understanding of the correlation between rate of impact and spinal injuries involving the facet joints. Facet joints are the bony structure linking the vertebrae to one another, allowing for coordinated spinal movement and helping to maintain the structural integrity of the spinal column. Facet joint injuries are one of the most common causes of neck and back pain following an accident. Stemper and Storvik’s study found compelling evidence that “implicates lower cervical facet joints in the injury mechanism resulting from low-speed automotive rear impacts…” (Stemper, B.D., Yoganandan, N., Storvik, S.G., Pintar, F.A., 2010, “Biomechanical role of the cervical facet joints in the whiplash injury mechanism”, 6th World Congress on Biomechanics, Singapore, August 1-6, 2010).

Flawed Predictive Models

Another study, published in 2007 by Anita Vasavada, a doctor of biomedical engineering at Washington State University, found that older models extensively used for predicting neck muscle injury rates were based on studies using head restraints positioned extremely close to the back of the head–not necessarily typical of what is found in a large percentage of cars on the road—shedding doubt on the relevance and validity of such models. Moreover, Vasavada’s research found that women are more likely to suffer whiplash injury and neck pain than men. Why this is so is not entirely clear, but Vasavada concluded that: “gender-specific biomechanical models are necessary to evaluate gender differences in neck musculoskeletal disorders”.

The Importance of Individualized Medical Evaluation

Vasavada’s research is echoed in a 2009 paper published by Bannister, Amirfeyz, Kelly and Gargan in the prestigious Bone and Joint Journal. Their study found that the preponderance of whiplash injuries occur at speeds of less than 14 mph, leading them to conclude that “disability from whiplash injuries is associated less with tire skid marks or the degree of vehicle damage than the effect of differential velocity on the head and upper torso.” In other words, whiplash injuries are a result of trauma to the body, not the extent of damage to the car. In a not so subtle rebuke of the psychiatric community’s long-held views on “malingering”—the exaggeration by traffic victims of physical injury and pain in pursuit of monetary gain—they added: “The view that claimants’ symptoms will improve once litigation has finished has long been suggested by psychiatrists but is unsupported by the literature.”

A Cruel and Misguided Notion

The notion that the extent of injury, pain and disability can be somehow predicted based on rate of impact and damage to the car—is misguided, inaccurate, outdated in light of current research—and more than anything else, cruel and stigmatizing in its dehumanizing effect on traffic accident victims who are struggling with the daily realities of living with chronic pain and functional loss. Scientific and medical research over the last decade underscores the critical need for doctors to evaluate back and neck injuries on an individual basis, avoiding gross and flawed generalizations that whiplash-type injuries can be correlated with impact velocity and vehicular damage.

If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident through the negligent or purposeful actions of another and have incurred a back or neck injury, it is important to consult with an accident attorney with extensive experience and knowledge in dealing with whiplash-type injuries. Do not settle for dismissive explanations of your pain and loss. Call us for a free legal consultation to get the individualized and enlightened attention that your case deserves: 314-409-7060 or 855-40-CRASH (toll free).

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Reach out to Chris Dixon for personal injury, workers compensation, product liability, and other legal services for experienced, reliable counsel and representation in St. Louis.

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