Today, we go looking for whiplash. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
New York Times writer Denise
Grady tells of a study recently done in Lithuania.
Under Communist rule, Lithuanian drivers didn't
carry personal insurance. Nor had the country
developed any tradition of people suing one
another. Of course Lithuanian drivers, like
everyone else, suffer rear-end collisions. So a
Norwegian doctor, Harald Schrader, headed a team of
seven Lithuanian and Norwegian doctors to study
whiplash in Lithuania.
The team interviewed 202 people who'd been
rear-ended, and 202 more people -- same ages, same
town -- who had not. They expected some of those
who'd been struck to suffer lingering effects. What
they finally did find was astonishing: no one in
the study reported after-effects that were
disabling -- or even persistent.
Whiplash is an injury to the upper spinal column.
The term comes from a scenario in which the head is
first thrown back by the collision; then it
"whiplashes" forward, squeezing vertebrae against
the soft tissue surrounding them.
From time to time, we all suffer whiplash as
serious as that in most rear-end collisions. It
occurs in the normal bumping and tripping of
everyday life -- in coughing, sneezing, running
downstairs, plopping into a chair, or playing
One-sixth of the Lithuanians who'd been hit could
recall short-term neck pain immediately afterward.
But none -- not any -- traced chronic long-term
neck or head problems to their collision. The
percentage of people reporting general neck-pain or
headache problems was roughly the same in both
One way or another, many Lithuanians (who knew
little of the fine art of lawsuit) said to
Schrader, Headaches! Why don't you ask why I
haven't fixed my bumper, two years later?
Schrader's own country, Norway, with 4.2 million
people, has an organization of 70,000 people who
claim to suffer from whiplash and are claiming, or
trying to claim, compensation for it. That comes to
nearly two percent of the Norwegian population.
Of course inertial head injuries can't be taken
lightly. The first thing new parents learn is to
support their baby's oversized head. Parents have
killed young children by simply shaking them in
anger. Whiplash is real enough. It's just that the
average rear-end auto accident seems unlikely to do
Yet over half of American auto injury claims report
back and neck sprains. Before we get to the merely
dubious claims, the National Insurance Crime Bureau
estimates that a sixth of those are patently
fraudulent. They alone cost you and me a hundred
dollars a year on each car we insure.
In the end, Schrader published the findings. And
when he did, a member of the Norwegian organization
of whiplash patients -- in perfect counterpoint --
threatened to sue him!
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds