Who Is At Fault When A Cyclist Is Injured Without A Helmet?


The Law Of… Cycling Without A Helmet

The safety of cyclists on Britain's roads has once again hit the headlines. This follows an inquest into the tragic death of a man thrown from his bike after hitting a pothole. The cyclist wasn't wearing a helmet.

Damian Ryder, a Road Traffic Accident Associate at Simpson Millar, examines the law regarding contributory negligence when injured cycling without a helmet.

Severe Brain Injury

The recent case involved 83 year old Roger Hamer, who died a month after crashing his bike. The cause of death was a severe brain injury resulting from his collision with the road, a probable consequence of hitting the pothole while in motion.

Although Mr Hamer was not wearing a cycling helmet, it was held that even if he had been it would not have saved his life.

What Is The Law Regarding Cycling Without A Helmet?

In the UK there is no legislation requiring cyclists to wear helmets. There have been numerous attempts to introduce such a law to increase safety, but various arguments have been advanced against this.

These include:

  • Issues of public policy, predominantly based on scientific studies demonstrating a decrease in cycling where mandatory, enforced helmet use has been introduced
  • Concerns regarding perceptions of safety while wearing a helmet
  • Scientific arguments in respect of the actual protection given by helmets.

The legal status at present is complicated. There is no criminal sanction for failing to wear a helmet, but it is recommended by the Highway Code.

If you choose to cycle without a helmet and are involved in an accident that isn't your fault, the question of contributory negligence raises its head.

What Is Contributory Negligence?

The Law Reform Act of 1945 decrees that if you are the victim of an accident and are judged to have contributed to your losses or caused the accident itself, a court can proportionally reduce the amount of compensation awarded. The reduction would be in accordance with the level with which you are held to have contributed to your own harm.

For example – if a cyclist is held to be 50% responsible for causing the accident, the compensation awarded would be reduced by 50%.

Claims by cyclists involved in accidents while out on the road are often countered by insurance companies with arguments that, as a result of not wearing a helmet, they are partially to blame for their injuries.

With contributory negligence, there are essentially 2 questions to be addressed:

  • Are you at fault for not wearing a cycling helmet?
  • Did your choice not to wear a helmet contribute to your injuries?

Am I Automatically At Fault For Not Wearing A Cycling Helmet?

Cycling without a helmet does not automatically put you at fault for any subsequent injury you sustain.

Despite certain compelling arguments in favour of wearing a helmet, it is not compulsory and, unlike seatbelts, there is no law to state that failing to do so amounts to automatic contributory negligence.

The starting point in a case, as per Phethean-Hubble v Coles [2012], would be for the court to only accept that you ran the risk of contributing to your injuries by not wearing a helmet. From here, and based upon your individual circumstances, there would be opportunity to refute this based upon your objective assessment of the risks involved.

The court would take into account everything you would have had prior knowledge of when making the decision not to wear a helmet.

This might include:

  • Road conditions
  • Expected levels of traffic
  • Your age and cycling experience

Would A Court Rule That My Choice Not To Wear A Cycling Helmet Contributed To My Injuries?

The answer to whether your claim would be affected by not wearing a cycling helmet lies in the circumstances that resulted in your injury. Two contrasting verdicts highlight this.

The first, Smith v Finch [2009], saw a cyclist sustain serious injuries – including head injuries – following a collision with a motorcyclist. He was not wearing a helmet at the time of the accident and it was for the court to decide whether he took reasonable care for his own safety.

After the judge stated it was for the motorcyclist's defence to prove that the claimant's failure to wear a helmet was a contributory cause of his injuries, the cyclist's legal representatives cited expert evidence that showed a modern helmet, made in accordance to the relevant EU standards, would only have protected him from impacts of less than 12mph.

Due to the speeds involved and the area of the head likely to have taken the brunt of the trauma, it was ruled that a helmet would've been useless in protecting the cyclist from serious brain injury and the claim was won on a 100% basis.

In the second verdict, the case of Reynolds v Strutt & Parker LLP [2011], the cyclist involved was also not wearing a helmet. This time round, the court accepted that the cyclist’s head impacted the ground at a speed of less than 12mph.

Although this didn't prevent the claimant from recovering some compensation, he was held to have been partially responsible for the extent of the injuries through contributory negligence. The value of the award was reduced accordingly.

Damian comments:

"While the debate continues regarding mandatory helmet laws, cyclists should be aware of the potential impact on any subsequent claim if they are involved in an accident while not wearing one."

"That said, there is no hard and fast rule to state that a cyclist will automatically face a deduction in their damages because they rode without a helmet. It is a very complex area of law and each case will turn on its own specific facts."

If you have been in an accident while cycling without a helmet and it is argued you should accept a deduction in your compensation, contact our Road Traffic Accident team for a no obligation chat today.

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