About a year ago, I momentarily lost concentration while I was driving through central London. I was travelling at less than five miles an hour, and it was a road I knew well, but that's no excuse. I don't even remember what distracted me, maybe an advertisement, maybe a child playing near the kerb, I don't know. But the result was that I lightly nudged the back of a very large van that had stopped at a zebra crossing in front of me.
I hit it. Lightly. So lightly there was no damage to my car at all. But the driver got out of the van rubbing the back of his neck, and I knew exactly what that meant. I was about to become another victim of the plague sweeping across England called 'cash for crash' - it's causing a veritable tsunami of fraudulent claims for 'whiplash'.
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Whiplash, of course, does exist. In a real collision, when a car is hit hard enough to shake the driver and passengers heads violently, the accident may well cause whiplash. But, it's an injury that leaves no mark, with the only symptom being pain. The sufferer's word is the only evidence, which is why the driver of the large van got out rubbing the back of his neck.
He was about to claim that my gentle nudge had caused him to suffer such a serious case of whiplash that the agonising pain would mean he'd have to take two weeks off work. And my insurance company would have to pay out £10,000.
I didn't think then, and don't think now, that my small car nudging his van could possibly have damaged his neck. He'd have done more damage nodding vigorously when his insurance company asked if he'd like £10,000 in compensation.
Why they get away with it
So I protested to my insurance company. But it was all in vain. Insurance companies won't fight these actions. This is because lawyers are too expensive and court cases too time-consuming, so they prefer to settle. One large insurance company showed me its figures. Even when it won a court action against a fraudulent claim, the cost of fighting the case was so high that it lost money.
But while insurance companies might not want to contest these claims, drivers are being penalised for the cash for crash crime wave, as the rise in fraudulent claims has driven up premiums. So when I had to renew my car insurance last week, because of my 'nudge', my company decided to put my premium up to well over £2,000.
But as we are forced by law to insure our cars, what's the answer? In my case, that irritating tenor with the corkscrew moustache singing "Go Compare" actually turned out to be quite useful. I went to the website and found another insurance company that would cover me for much, much less.
But that won't tackle the underlying problem. Personal injury claims company Accident Advice Helpline told me there's a whole chain of corruption behind this type of crime, from the doctor who supplied a medical certifi cate in return for a fee to the lawyer who took a percentage. It's an insidious form of fraud.
To fight this fraudulent plague, we need to come up with a clear definition of when you can claim for whiplash. They've done so in Germany, where judges have ruled that any accident at less than 10 miles an hour cannot cause the condition. It is sensible and practical, and overnight the plague was eradicated. Perhaps we should do the same here? I'm sure all car owners paying overpriced insurance premiums would be more than happy to see this malaise wiped out.
Esther Rantzen is a renowned broadcaster and founder of ChildLine. Email her at email@example.com