Background The clinical consequences of whiplash injuries resulting from a motor vehicle accident (MVA) are poorly understood. Thereby, there is general lack of research on the development of disability in patients with acute and chronic Whiplash Associated Disorders. Methods/Design The objective is to describe the design of an inception cohort study with a 1-year follow-up to determine risk factors for the development of symptoms after a low-impact motor vehicle accident, the prognosis of chronic disability, and costs. Victims of a low-impact motor vehicle accident will be eligible for participation. Participants with a Neck Disability Index (NDI) score of 7 or more will be classified as experiencing post-traumatic neck pain and will enter the experimental group. Participants without complaints (a NDI score less than 7) will enter the reference group. The cohort will be followed up by means of postal questionnaires and physical examinations at baseline, 3 months, 6 months, and 12 months. Recovery from whiplash-associated disorders will be measured in terms of perceived functional health, and employment status (return to work). Life tables will be generated to determine the 1-year prognosis of whiplash-associated disorders, and risk factors and prognostic factors will be assessed using multiple logistic regression analysis. Discussion Little is known about the development of symptoms and chronic disability after a whiplash injury. In the clinical setting, it is important to identify those people who are at risk of developing chronic symptoms. This inception prospective cohort study will provide insight in the influence of risk factors, of the development of functional health problems, and costs in people with whiplash-associated disorders.