Cycling Helmets and Contributory Negligence

Cyclist Bradley Wiggins has been hitting the headlines recently, not just for winning the Tour de France, but for calling for a change in the law to make it mandatory for all cyclists to wear helmets. At present wearing a cycle helmet is not compulsory by law; but it is encouraged in the Highway Code. This campaign was prompted by the death of a cyclist who was killed in a collision with an Olympic bus on the edge of the Olympic Park this month. Wiggins said, ‘”Ultimately, if you get knocked off and you ain’t got a helmet on, then how can you kind of argue… Once there are laws passed for cyclists then you are protected and you can say, ‘Well, I have done everything to be safe’’. His comments have fuelled a fierce debate as to whether or not helmets should be made mandatory to all cyclists

On the face of it there is no obvious downside to making the wearing of cycle helmets compulsory, but there are still many who are yet to be convinced. London Mayor Boris Johnson responded to Wiggins’ comments by saying “It’s quite right to say that people should [wear a helmet] if they have got one, but we have absolutely no plans to make it mandatory.”

So why the resistance?  The case for the opposition is wide-ranging; Roger Geffen of the Cyclists’ Touring Club highlighted that ‘evidence strongly suggests that being told to wear helmets strongly deters some people from cycling’, and it has also been suggested that most incidents involving cyclists are due to poor road design and in some cases wearing a helmet would make no difference at all.  Drivers may also be less cautious and drive closer when passing cyclists wearing helmets.

Although the use of cycle helmets is not mandatory, that does not mean that failing to wear a helmet will have no effect on a claim for damages following personal injuries sustained in a cycling accident.  The Courts have wide ranging powers to split liability between parties to an accident using a principal known as “contributory negligence”, whereby an injured person’s own culpability is considered in assessing blame.  Contributory negligence is most commonly seen in situations such as failing to wear a seatbelt or stepping out in front of a car when crossing the road.  In such situations the Court may hold that they would not have suffered the same injury, or it would not have been as severe, had they not contributed to the accident by, for instance, not wearing their seatbelt.  It is common for the Claimant to be held between 15-20% liable in this situation, meanging that they will only recover 80-85% of the total value of their compensation claim. 

So what are the Courts saying about contributory negligence for cyclists who sustain personal injuries whilst not wearing a helmet?  In Smith v Finch [2009] a cyclist was knocked off his bicycle as a result of a motorist driving too close. The cyclist was not wearing a helmet and suffered serious injuries. Expert evidence at the hearing showed that cycle helmets are only designed to withstand an impact of up to 12mph, so that if the injured person hits the floor at a greater speed the helmet is unlikely to have had any effect.  In this case the Court held that the speed at which the cyclist hit the ground was too high for a helmet to afford any protection and consequently there was no evidence to suggest here that wearing a helmet would have prevented the injury or reduced the severity of the damage.  The Claimant succeeded on a 100% basis with no deduction for contributory negligence, as his failure to wear a helmet did not contribute to the accident or the injuries sustained.

More recently, in Reynolds v Strutt & Parker LLP [2011] the Court found that wearing a helmet would have made a difference because the speed at which the cyclist’s head came into contact with the ground fell below the 12 mph standard to which helmets must conform. The cyclist was found to be contributory negligent and his damages were reduced. 

There is clear evidence to suggest that cycle helmets play a crucial role in preventing head injury in relatively low speed impacts, providing they are fitted properly and stay in place during the fall.  However, it seems there have been no studies to show in what proportion of all cycling accidents helmets have played a valid part in preventing injury.  With cycle helmets designed only to protect in relatively low speed impacts, it seems that the number of serious head injuries which may be prevented by their use is not sufficiently high to counter the contrary arguments of public policy (encouraging cycle use) and the illusion of safety (causing or contributing to accidents).  For the time being at least, the use of helmets is set to stay purely optional.

David Mayor

About David Mayor

David is Head of the Preston Office's Civil Litigation team and deals with all types of private Civil Court disputes. David’s blogs cover his expertise in all aspects of personal injury law from low value Road Traffic Accidents right through to complex large loss claims. David also writes and has a vast array of experience in Public Liability (trips and slips), Employer's Liability (accidents at work), and Motor Claims (motor vehicle accidents, pedestrian accidents).
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