January 12, 2012

Finally somebody has applied some top level forensic intellect to the thorny old question of motor accident personal injury claims. The Parliamentary Select Committee on Transport – or whatever it’s called – has published another follow-up report on the cost of motor insurance and come up with some fairly startling conclusions. Apparently the 70% rise in motor insurance claims costs over the past six years is mostly down to something called “whiplash.”

Louise Ellman is the chair of the committee. Being called a chair is not as bad as being called a bike or something, but still seems a trifle unflattering. Like calling a postman a post, a frogman frog, or a backwoodsman backwards. Or whatever. We digress. Louise claims the industry has only itself to blame: “Insurers, solicitors and claims management companies have themselves driven up the cost of motor premiums by encouraging people caught up in road accidents they did not cause to claim for personal injury, car hire, and other legal costs.”

The language might sound prosaic, even clumsy, but the originality and acuity of the insight the chair presents should not be underestimated.

Most of the claims cost rise, it turns out, is down to personal injury, and most of the personal injury cost, amazingly, is down to an apparently semi-fictional post-collision affliction of the neck known as “whiplash.” Ergo: sort this whiplash thing out and – bingo – you don’t really have a problem!

So the Transport Committee is putting this rogue condition on notice. Step one: “The threshold for receiving compensation in whiplash cases should be raised,” says the chair. And then if whiplash claims persist in presenting themselves in significant numbers, “the government should bring forward primary legislation to require objective evidence – both of a whiplash injury and of it having a significant effect on the claimant’s life – before compensation is paid,” she said.

So that’s whiplash well on the road to getting sorted. But there’s another item on the agenda – one that may provoke mixed emotions among all those self-harming ‘insurers, solicitors and claims management companies.’

Alleging outrageously that the insurance industry has been engaging in “sharp practices,” the chair goes on to insist that these must be abandoned. What on earth could she have in mind? “Passing drivers’ personal data to other parties or taking secretive referral fees from solicitors, garages and car hire firms,” she specifies.

One person who could not agree more with the chair’s prescription is Nick Sparrow of the ABI who declares with repetitively ungrammatical emphasis that: “our customers are fed up of getting text messages, fed up of the compensation culture, and” – just for the sake of variety – “have had enough of paying higher car insurance premiums to line the pockets of ambulance chasing lawyers and claims management companies.” Quite so: it is surely only the threadbare pockets of insurance companies that today’s motorists are eager to line.

All of which suggests, that we are perhaps seeing some early signs of a schism within the holy trinity of ‘insurers, solicitors and claims management companies.’ What is the world coming to? Who can you trust? Etc. Etc.

With the Office of Fair Trading now very much on the referral fees/cost of motor insurance case, the Transport Committee will increasingly focus its energies on the War on Whiplash. Good thing too, says Douglas Simon of Alcoholics Anonymous: “A claims culture has developed.” he reveals, “to the extent that it has become accepted that if another vehicle hits your car, you should make an injury claim.” Clearly this must be disaccepted – and fast.

The onus is on public-facing members of the medical profession to get on with the core task of telling people they are fine and should go away and stop making a fuss (assuming they are not too busy fending off nuisance calls from shady firms attempting to purchase details of personally injured patients). Generous grants are now available to researchers interested in casting doubt on the existence of whiplash injuries in general and/or developing new diagnostic techniques capable of disproving its existence on a case by case basis.

Whiplash is an elusive enemy, suddenly attacking, and then just as quickly melting away into the impenetrable hinterland of scientific doubt. But the chair and her committee colleagues have sent out a clear message with this report. A message that quite simply says: see full report.


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