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Motor insurers feel the pain of whiplash

No-win no-fee outfits are adding hugely to our motor insurance premiums, but the industry needs to get its own act together

When the Ford Granada sped round the corner of a country lane and smacked hard into the back of my stationary Golf, I had about a second from seeing it in the mirror, to feeling the violent impact. My car was a write-off – and so was the Granada, driven by someone who didn’t look a day over 20. Luckily, I was wearing a seatbelt and the fabled crumple zones of my Golf did the job. Amazingly, all I suffered was a slightly stiff neck.

But a slightly stiff neck is the wrong word. It was “whiplash”, and that qualified me for winnings of around £3,000 to £5,000. All I had to do was head down to the GP, lay it on thick about the pain, and, bingo, I could pocket thousands of pounds. After all, everybody does it.

It was the late 1990s, and no-win no-fee outfit Claims Direct was saturating our TV screens with its “where there’s a blame, there’s a claim” adverts. The firm, nicknamed “Shames Direct” after complaints from customers who only got a fraction of their payouts, later called in the receivers. As for me, I never made a claim – the pain eased in a matter of days – and more than a decade later have never suffered any complications. Apart, that is, from an increase in my premiums which rose sharply, even though I was evidently not at fault.

Britain is now the whiplash capital of Europe, with 1,500 people a day making claims for injured necks. Despite huge advances in car safety, and despite the fact that the number of deaths on the road has fallen dramatically, these claims have soared to more than half a million a year. The Association of British Insurers says they’re costing every driver an extra £90 a year through their premiums.

David Cameron wants to put a brake on “trivial” claims, citing Germany as an example of where low-speed collisions can’t qualify.

It’s uncomfortable when you find yourself on the side of both Cameron and the insurance industry, but it can happen. How many of those half-million claims last year were faked? No one can know, although the BBC uncovered car accidents in the West Midlands that were, depressingly, staged by a claims company itself.

My guess is that a vast number of “injuries” are quite deliberately exaggerated, and, in doing so, the perpetrators bring suspicion on all those making legitimate claims.

But it’s all a bit too convenient for the insurance industry to blame whiplash alone for premium increases. How about its own incompetence? We were contacted by a reader whose car bumped into a van in west London. There was no visible damage – hardly surprising when the driver was doing no more than 7mph. Yet the insurer caved into a claim of £6,500 from the van driver. “You will have to take our word for it but we know this ‘quantum’ was grossly exaggerated (to the point of fraud),” said our reader.

This is an industry where there seems to be little control on costs. A culture has arisen where it doesn’t matter, as the other party’s insurer will pay up. By all means, insurers, go after the no-win no-fee claims companies – but clean your own house up too. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds