Cycle Helmets Debate Continues

Oct 05, 2012, 08:57 ET from Fentons Solicitors LLP

LONDON, October 5, 2012 /PRNewswire/ --

Cycle Helmets Debate Continues

Matthew Claxson, a road accident claims specialist at Fentons Solicitors LLP, said the peculiar science of cycling safety is much more complex than many people realise. "The issue of helmet use within the cycling community is a fiercely controversial subject, particularly in regard to mandatory helmet laws. Opinions as to whether helmets should or should not be worn are frequently dominated by both emotion and exaggeration, which can make it very difficult knowing what to believe… In the meantime however, the civil courts in personal injury claims involving helmetless cyclists are having to consider whether any damages awarded may have to be reduced for the cyclist's perceived 'contribution' to their injuries."

Cycle helmets and contributory negligence

In the landmark 2008 Reynolds v Strutt & Parker case, a claimant sued his employer after falling from his bike and suffering brain damage whilst competing in a cycle race organised as part of a company team-building day. Although the claimant was unhelmeted when he fell, despite the availability of helmets on the day of the incident, his employers were found liable because they had 'failed to conduct an adequate risk assessment' before the race. The claimant's damages however, were reduced by two-thirds because of his perceived contributory negligence in firstly failing to wear a helmet and secondly because he was seen to have been riding in a dangerous manner.

"The Reynolds case was the first time the courts had reduced a cyclist's compensation in this way and meant that any decision not to wear a helmet could have legal consequences for cyclists suing for compensation after suffering head injuries," said Matthew. "The Cyclist's Defence Fund suggest that it is now common for insurers to seek contributory negligence deductions in out of court settlements for cycling-related head injury claims and for the cases that have reached the courts in recent years, failing to wear a helmet has been deemed negligent, largely because it involves ignoring Rule 59 of the Highway Code which currently recommends that 'you should wear a cycle helmet which conforms to current regulations, is the correct size and securely fastened'."

How effective are helmets at protecting cyclists?

In contrast with the efficiency of seatbelts and motorcycle helmets, the evidence surrounding cycle helmets is hugely controversial. Cycle helmets have been around since 1975 and were originally conceived as a 'spin-off' product from the development of expanded polystyrene foams in motorcycle helmets. Acting like a shock absorber, the expanded polystyrene liner is intended to dissipate the energy of an impact by compressing - in theory, protecting the rate at which the skull and brain are accelerated by a collision. However, once the liner is fully compressed, the helmet can offer no further protection and any residual energy is then passed directly onto the skull and brain. In high impact cases involving vehicles, the protection afforded by helmets is likely to be minimal as the energy potentials are commonly at rates known to overwhelm even Formula 1 racing helmets. Put simply, cycle helmets are not designed to protect wearers from an impact with a moving vehicle and many remain convinced that they only offer protection in low speed falls involving no other parties.

In 2009, the Department for Transport commissioned a report reviewing the evidence on cycle helmets and concluded that helmets 'would be expected to be effective' at reducing the risk of head injury in accidents not involving any other vehicles. However, there was no reliable evidence that helmets have resulted in a lower risk of head injury in cases involving vehicle collisions, as helmets themselves don't require testing at impact speeds above 12mph.

So should cycle helmets be worn or shouldn't they?

Very few people would argue against the voluntary use of helmets. However, it is the active promotion of helmet use - particularly in regard to mandatory helmet laws - that attracts the most controversy. Those advocating the use of helmets, such as road safety campaigners, brain injury charities and those who believe helmets have already saved their lives or spared them more serious injury, invariably believe that in the event of a fall, a helmet might spare them from lifelong disability by significantly reducing the severity of any potential head injury suffered.

"Two-thirds of collisions between adult cyclists and vehicles are deemed by the police to have been the fault of the motorist," said Matthew. "Helmet campaigners often assume that helmets are as effective at preventing brain injuries and fatalities as they are at preventing lacerations and minor concussions. In London, more than 50 per cent of cycling fatalities are caused by large vehicles turning left at junctions. Sadly, no helmet in the world is going to save anyone from being crushed under a heavy-goods vehicle whose driver failed to see them on the inside. As such, any reflex response that the absence of a helmet might be a causative factor in someone's injuries often ignores the reality on our roads.

"It is concerning that an automatic implication of fault for failing to wear a helmet is gathering currency and that many personal injury lawyers, insurance companies and coroners are focusing too much on the question of helmet use, rather than analysing the cause of the vast majority of accidents involving cyclists, that of negligent driver error," said Matthew. "Many injuries to cyclists could not under any circumstances be prevented or remotely affected by the wearing or absence of a helmet. Seeing that helmets can clearly only protect the crown of the wearer's head, it is absolutely wrong for a helmetless collision victim to be held culpable without a great deal of further investigation."

"The safest forms of travel are walking and cycling," added Matthew.  "Cycling is not inherently dangerous but like pedestrians, cyclists are more vulnerable and susceptible to serious injuries than motorists. Driver error is responsible for 90 per cent of all collisions on the road and as such, they have the major responsibility to take care. Rather than making cycle helmets compulsory for all we should instead be concentrating on calling for a range of additional measures to improve cyclists' safety, such as more widespread 20mph limits, more traffic-free and segregated cycle lanes - especially on key commuter routes - and a greater emphasis on awareness campaigns aimed at educating both cyclists and motorists in how they can share the limited road space we have in the most effective and appropriate way."

Although the Royal Society for the prevention of accidents (RoSPA) have a policy that recommends all cyclists wear a helmet, they also state that 'The most effective ways of reducing cyclist accidents and casualties are to improve the behaviour of drivers, improve the behaviour of cyclists and to provide safer cycling environments.'

How can Fentons help?

Fentons has a specialist department experienced in handling claims for individuals who sustain serious injuries in road traffic accidents.

If you think that you have a case or require further information contact Fentons on 0800 0191 297 or fill in the online claims questionnaire.

SOURCE Fentons Solicitors LLP