By Tony Whitney

Anyone who’s suffered whiplash in a rear-end collision can tell you how painful it is. The effects of a serious collision can last for months – even years – and automakers and safety legislators have been trying to minimize these kinds of injuries.

The first line of defence against whiplash injury is a well-designed head restraint – commonly miscalled a “headrest” by safety and insurance authorities who should know better. That leather or cloth trimmed unit behind your head is not there to “rest” your head on, but to prevent whiplash injuries in a frontal or rear collision which causes the head to be flung forward, backwards and usually both.

Automakers have well-staffed design departments working on seat systems and some of the engineers probably spend entire careers developing ever more effective head restraints. It’s a good idea, especially if you’re taller than average, to make sure that your new car has restraints that properly support your head in the correct place should an accident happen. The better head restraints have forward tilt adjustment that enables the user to position the unit fairly close to the head – that’s the positioning I feel most comfortable with.

Dr. Lotta Jakobsson
Dr. Lotta Jakobsson. Click image to enlarge

Of course, some automakers will try to “go the extra mile” with safety systems and Swedish manufacturer Volvo is among them. Although Volvo isn’t the only automaker paying close attention to the prevention of neck injuries in auto accidents, it has produced some pioneering head restraint systems.

These efforts were marked recently by a safety engineering award from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which is closely watched by Canadian safety authorities. The award was granted to Volvo’s Dr. Lotta Jakobsson, who, according to the NHTSA jury, has made “outstanding contributions in extending biomechanics knowledge and improving vehicle safety design.”

With Volvo since 1989, Dr. Jakobsson is recognized around the world as an expert in impact trauma biomechanics and has made, according to Volvo, significant and pioneering contributions both to traffic injury research and to the design of safety systems in Volvo vehicles. Trauma biomechanics involves the study of exactly what happens to the occupants of vehicles when they are involved in accidents. Currently, Dr. Jakobsson heads up a safety analysis and research team at Volvo’s Safety Centre in Sweden.

Dr. Jakobsson’s interest in automotive safety goes back a long way and she wrote her doctoral thesis on work she did on whiplash-associated disorders caused by front and rear vehicle impacts. There have been many studies around the world – both inside and outside the auto industry – on whiplash injuries and most of them confirm Dr. Jakobsson’s long-held theory that such injuries can be reduced by between 30 and 60 per cent by fitting a sophisticated head restraint system to vehicles.

Ford-owned Volvo’s answer to the whiplash dilemma is the company’s Whiplash Protection System, marketed by the company as WHIPS. The system was the result of work by Dr. Jakobsson and is now fitted to all new Volvo vehicles. Other automakers have their own version of what is basically an “active” head restraint system.

WHIPS - Whiplash Protection System
WHIPS – Whiplash Protection System. Click image to enlarge

The WHIPS head restraint sits close to the vehicle occupant’s head and is of robust design and developed in association with a seat backrest that provides uniform support. In short, seat and head restraint work in unison for optimum protection in an accident. The system uses an articulated joint between backrest and head restraint which is capable of absorbing energy during an impact. In a rear impact, the backrest moves rearward with the seat’s occupant – first in a parallel motion and then with a slight backward slant. The effect of the impact on the occupant’s back is further reduced by the deformation capability of the joint between backrest and head restraint. In short, the vehicle occupant is protected in every way possible in terms of reducing whiplash. Volvo’s philosophy is that the entire spine and head must be effectively supported in a collision – hence the reason for engineering a seat and head restraint that work together to maximize protection in a collision.

2005 Volvo S40 WHIPS system
2005 Volvo S40 WHIPS system. Click image to enlarge

Interestingly, experts admit that they don’t really know how whiplash occurs, but the effects of it are well documented. All kinds of unpleasant after-effects can occur, including neck pains, stiffness, headaches, dizziness and even tingling in the arms. Most experts agree that whiplash is caused by damage to ligaments, muscles, discs, joints and the nerve system following the neck’s three basic movement sequences in a collision – an initial S-shaped movement, rearward motion and the final forward movement of the head. Many symptoms disappear quickly, but some sufferers are off work for months and in extreme cases, victims of whiplash may never work again.

In years gone by, vehicles had no type of head restraint at all and some of the early ones were more decorative than practical with not enough upward adjustment to properly support the head of a taller person. Modern vehicles, even if they don’t boast sophisticated head restraint systems like those of Volvo and close rivals like Mercedes-Benz, usually have excellent head restraints, but new car buyers should always check that restraints properly adjust for their particular height.

While most drivers probably get through a lifetime of motoring without suffering a whiplash injury, it’s good to know that people like Dr. Lotta Jakobsson (who also helped design a crash test dummy for whiplash research) are working behind the scenes to make each generation of new vehicles a little bit safer than the last.

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