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Cycling Helmets – Should Wearing One Become Law?

by Ridley&Hall in Janet Watson, News posted September 15, 2013.

The debate on whether the wearing of cycling helmets should be made compulsory has been  highlighted once again recently by the tragic cycling accident of  teenager, Ryan Smith. He was left in a coma after suffering severe head injuries, following a collision. He was not wearing a cycling helmet. His distraught father (a paramedic and cyclist)  had tried to persuade him to wear one but the son refused as he was concerned that it would spoil his hairstyle. His father is calling for a law that protective head gear has to be worn when cycling.

The statistics on the benefits or otherwise of wearing a helmet are inconclusive.

The British Medical Association backs compulsory helmet legislation, because ambulance officers, doctors, and nurses have known for a long time that head injuries are responsible for three quarters of cyclists deaths and helmets undoubtedly keep us safer in the event of a head to tarmac collision.A 2009 survey found that they provide up to 88% reduction in the risk of brain injuries.

Lynn Myles, a neurosurgeon and keen cyclist, said “Helmets will not save a cyclist in the event of a high speed collision with a car or lorry (nothing will) but most cycling accidents aren’t of the high speed variety they are low velocity crashes simple falls due to icy or wet roads..”

The Highway Code favours the wearing of helmets, Rule 59 states “ you should wear a cycling helmet which conforms to current regulations, is the correct size and is securely fastened…”

Personal Injury law also comes down in favour of wearing helmets. A claimant, if injured whilst not wearing a helmet, must show that the helmet would not have protected the head in that particular situation. If the claimant cannot show that, then even if liability for the accident is admitted by the defendant, damages claimed could be reduced. The Judge is likely to find that the claimant has contributed to their injuries but not taking care of themselves. The judge in Phethean-Hubble v Coles [2011] held that the appropriate starting point was to accept that a cyclist who failed to wear a helmet ran the risk of contributing to his injuries, following the decision in Smith v Finch [2009]. Although there was evidence regarding the potential benefit of helmets in head injury cases and the generally beneficial nature of wearing helmets, in this particular case as there was more than one impact that caused severe head injuries it was actually held that wearing a helmet would have had a minimal effect. So each case depends on its facts.

Interestingly, a recent study led by Jessica Dennis at the University of Toronto held that compulsory helmet laws in various parts of Canada had achieved only a minimal effect on hospital admissions for head injuries relating to cyclists injuries.

Modern helmets are designed to protect against skull fractures but are less effective at preventing traumatic brain injuries.

Research by the Institute of Transport Economics has even apparently shown that helmets increase the risk of injury. Researchers found that cyclists having removed their helmets cycled more slowly, reducing their risk of being involved in an accident.

Drivers are apparently more likely to give a wider berth to cyclists without helmets, particularly long haired women! Researchers claim that drivers see cyclists as a separate subculture to which they do not belong . Traffic psychologist Ian Walker said in 2006 “as a result they hold stereo typed ideas about cyclists, often judging riders by the yardstick of the lycra clad street warrior. This leads many people to believe cyclists with helmets are more serious, experienced and predictable than those without”

There is an argument that proper cycling infrastructure will do more to make cycling safer than the introduction of compulsory head gear. Researchers cite countries like Holland and Sweden where there are good bike lanes and cycling is an accepted mode of transport. Cyclists in these countries generally do not wear helmets and yet the incidents of serious head injuries are lower than in the UK. Bike lanes and other infrastructure make riders safer as do more bikes on the streets there is safety in numbers. It appears that motorists adjust their behaviour in the presence of people walking and cycling.

The most compelling evidence against helmet legislation comes from Britain’s biggest pro-cycling charity the Cyclists Touring Club (CTC). It argues that forcing everyone to wear helmets would have huge unintended consequences in that it would discourage people to get on their bikes, and in consequence the benefits gained for the country by people being more health conscious and fitter generally would be lost.

Beverley Turner, the writer and wife of British rowing champion James Cracknell is in favour of the introduction of mandatory helmets. Three years ago Cracknell was hit by a tanker as he was cycling in Arizona. She believes that without his helmet there is no way he would be alive, she said at the time “the doctors say his cycling helmet which was shorn in two with the impact saved his life” She considers that the risk of an initial drop in cycling rates is a price worth paying and if the rule was initially introduced for those under 16 (in which case their parents would be liable for a fine) it would help ease the nation into the idea of helmet wearing.

There has been a great deal of research on the wearing of cycling helmets and the debate will continue whether or not there is legislation in place. Those who back freedom of choice will continue to raise arguments against legislation and those that have been affected by a tragic accident will continue to lobby for compulsory wearing of helmets. Sir Bradley Wiggins who is  reluctant to champion a change of legislation in relation to the wearing of helmets accepts that if he had not been wearing his helmet on the day he was knocked from his bike he would have sustained a serious head injury, although his other injuries were only minor.

Basically, there are not many people who were involved in an accident who would say that they were glad they were not wearing a helmet, but whether it should be made compulsory that is another matter altogether.

Janet Watson is a Chartered Legal Executive specialising in cycling accidents at Ridlety & Hall Solicitors. For further information on cycling accidents, please call 01484 538421 and ask to speak to Janet or contact her by e-mail.

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