It seems so intuitively obvious. A low-speed crash that does little or no damage to the vehicle should allow the occupants of the vehicle to walk away unscathed.
Physics, and extensive research going back decades, proves otherwise. To cite just one review of medical records, a 1998 article published in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics states
In low-impact collisions, there are usually no skid marks and minor or no visible damage to the vehicle. There is a lack of relationship between occupant injury, vehicle speed and/or damage. There does not seem to be an absolute speed or amount of damage a vehicle sustains for a person to experience injury. Crash tests indicate that a change of vehicle velocity of 4 km/hr (2.5 mph) may produce occupant symptoms. Vehicle damage may not occur until 14-15 km/hr (8.7 mph). Occupant soft tissue and joint injuries resulting from low-speed vehicle collisions respond positively to afferent stimulation of mechanoreceptors. The diagnosis of the occupant injuries relies on standard orthopedic neurological testing, autonomic concomitant signs and qualitative and quantitative testing.
To pull out the facts that prove injuries occur even when a vehicle remains undamaged: “[A] change of vehicle velocity of 4 km/hr (2.5 mph) may produce occupant symptoms. Vehicle damage may not occur until 14-15 km/hr (8.7 mph).”
A person walking at normal pace averages 3 mph.
- Who Is at Fault for a Rear-End Collision?
- When Whiplash Leaves Permanent Damage
- Right Shoulder Tears Are Common Injuries to Victims of Rear-End Collisions
Nearly 40 years of experience as a personal injury attorney in Virginia Beach and Norfolk has convinced me that while speed does, in fact, kill, crashes of any kind can inflict injuries. Further, low-speed, low-impact crashes are typically rear-end collisions. The injuries sustained tend to be whiplash and/or shoulder damage.
Understanding why whiplash results from even low-impact rear-end collisions requires understanding what whiplash is. As defined by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Whiplash—a soft tissue injury to the neck—is also called neck sprain or neck strain. It is characterized by a collection of symptoms that occur following damage to the neck, usually because of sudden extension and flexion. The disorder commonly occurs as the result of an automobile accident and may include injury to intervertebral joints, discs, and ligaments, cervical muscles, and nerve roots. Symptoms such as neck pain may be present directly after the injury or may be delayed for several days. In addition to neck pain, other symptoms may include neck stiffness, injuries to the muscles and ligaments (myofascial injuries), headache, dizziness, abnormal sensations such as burning or prickling (paresthesias), or shoulder or back pain. In addition, some people experience cognitive, somatic, or psychological conditions such as memory loss, concentration impairment, nervousness/irritability, sleep disturbances, fatigue, or depression.
Focus on that “sudden extension and flexion.” Now, think about what happens to your head when someone stumbles into you from behind or when you inadvertently step back and encounter an object you did not realize was there. What happens? Your head snaps forward and you react by snapping it back.
The same reaction and reflex are triggered by a rear-end collision. And it does not take much overextension or force to damage the muscles and nerves in the neck and upper back.
Consider, too, the listed symptoms of whiplash:
- Pain through the neck, back and shoulders
- Tingling and numbness
- Memory loss
- Difficulty concentrating
That is all serious stuff form an injury that can occur when a car or truck is barely moving.
And Why Shoulder Injuries?
Rotator cuff tears appear to be the second most common type of injury suffered in low-speed, low-impact rear-end collisions. What usually happens is the supraspinatus tendon, which connects the muscle beneath the shoulder blade to the upper arm bone detaches. The ligaments that connect the deltoids with the biceps and pectoral are also prone to tearing.
These shoulder injuries occur because drivers tend to lock their arm when grasping the steering wheel. As their head and body pitch forward from the force of being struck from behind, their shoulder remains in place. Tendons and ligament literally get stretched to their breaking points.
A major rotator cuff tear requires surgical repair. Until that happens, the injured victim will experience a persistent dull ache in the affected shoulder, limited range of motion, difficulty sleeping due the pain and weakness in the affected arm. Following surgery, tendonitis and arthritis may develop.
Misperceptions Lead to Denial
Despite the evidence, people persist in believing that low-speed, low-impact crashes rarely or never leave innocent drivers and passengers injured. That group includes insurance claims adjustors who, in any event, have an incentive to disbelieve claimants’ reports of the nature and severity of their injuries.
Facts cannot be ignored forever, though. Medical records and expert testimony secured by a personal injury can help convince everyone that serious injuries resulted from a crash that hardly dented the victim’s car or truck.
Rick Shapiro has practiced personal injury law for over two decades in Virginia, North Carolina, and throughout the Southeastern United States. He is a Board Certified Civil Trial Advocate by the National Board of Trial Advocacy (ABA Accredited) and has litigated injury cases throughout the eastern United States, including wrongful death, trucking, faulty products, railroad, and medical negligence claims. His success in and out of the courtroom is a big reason why he was named 2019 “Lawyer of the Year” in railroad law in U.S. News & World Report's Best Lawyers publication (Norfolk, VA area), and he has been named a “Best Lawyer” and “Super Lawyer” by those peer-reviewed organizations for many years. Rick was also named a “Leader in the Law, Class of 2022” by Virginia Lawyers Weekly (total of 33 statewide honorees consisting of lawyers and judges across Virginia).