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Despite Common Belief, Serious Injuries Are Possible in Low-Speed Crashes

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Plaintiffs who claim serious injuries from low-speed crashes are often thought to be trying to put one over on the legal system. The general notion is that people are seriously hurt only in moderate- or high-speed automobile accidents, which can make it difficult to prove a plaintiff’s claims in a low-speed crash.

A closer look at the real evidence, however, shows that there is no identified threshold for injury in car accidents, and that there are more factors at work in determining injury than speed.

Insurance Companies Set Unreasonable Standards

In the mid-1990s, a leading U.S. auto insurer published a set of guidelines directing claims adjusters that injury claims resulting from motor vehicle crashes with less than $1,000 in vehicle property damages were "unlikely to—or cannot cause significant or permanent injury," and should "be handled as a fraudulent claim," regardless of evidence of injury. (Medical Science Monitor, October 2005)

Yet attorneys representing plaintiffs in automobile accident claims know this isn’t true. Plaintiffs can be seriously injured in low-speed crashes where vehicles are travelling 10 mph or less. According to John Smith, a professional engineer in Parker, Colorado, writing in Trial magazine, "In many collision cases with little or no property damage, the occupants are severely injured."

Smith argues that although defense experts assert that change in velocity, peak acceleration, and impact speed are viable gauges of whether a person has been injured, the only valid approach is "to compare the locations of applied forces with the diagnosed injuries and types of injuries known to occur."

It’s Not All About Speed

Insurance companies want us to think that the potential for injury in a crash is all about speed. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, for instance, presented their findings at the National Forum on Speeding in Washington D.C. in June 2005. According to their data, the likelihood of being injured and injury severity in a crash depend on the change in speed at impact.

Smith disagrees, stating that as manufacturing and component sophistication has increased in the car industry, exceptions to this theory have emerged. Two cars with equivalent changes in speed could have different damage patterns.

A review of 1) test data from consultants, 2) crash data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and 3) injury data from sources such as the National Automotive Sampling System (NASS), show that a vehicle’s change in velocity does not define the forces on the vehicle. Further, the forces on the occupant do not match any other identified activity.

Studies Show that Low-Speed Injuries Happen

Research on low-speed crash injuries has been somewhat skewed so far, as many crash tests have involved real human subjects, and thus have been optimized for safety. Others have been run with the researchers using themselves for subjects, creating a conflict of interest, especially when the data was gathered specifically for litigation.

Other research, however, shows that low-speed crashes can and do cause serious injury. An article published in Archives of Emergency Medicine found that rear-end impacts of as little as five mph can give rise to significant symptoms.

Australian researchers Kenna and Murtagh stated in their study, "It is wrong to assume that maximum neck injury occurs in a high-speed collision; it is slow or moderate collision that causes maximum hyperextension of the cervical spine. High-speed collisions often break the back of the seat, thus minimizing the force of hyperextension."

Smith points out that Murray Mackay analyzed more than 2,900 accidents reported in NASS and showed there is no threshold speed change value for an injury in real-life collisions. Other studies show that high impact forces are transmitted directly to the occupant in low-speed impacts.

The bottom line is that though insurance companies and other defense experts may turn up their noses at low-speed car crashes, the facts support plaintiff claims that injuries can and do happen at low speeds. A savvy attorney needs only present these facts in court.