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For all the benefits of cycling, as with most things, there is another side – there are risks. However, it might surprise you to know that most people actually overestimate the risks of cycling. Statistics show that 61% of adults aged over 18 feel that “it is too dangerous for me to cycle on the roads” despite some studies finding that the risks of cycling were similar to other modes of transport, and in 17-20 year olds, safer than driving.

One of the most common injuries, particularly when looking specifically at more serious incidents, is head injuries. Which explains why ‘the helmet debate’ is such a hot topic.

But why is there a debate? Why don’t all cyclists wear a piece of equipment designed to improve their safety? In truth, there are many individual factors, from cost, to vanity, which might stop a person from wearing a helmet, but idiosyncrasies aside, it’s still not as straightforward a decision as you might imagine; It’s a contentious point that divides the cycling community.

Those for helmets

Those who advocate for the use of helmets will refer to various studies which demonstrate the protection offered, such as the meta-analysis (consideration of a number of studies to identify overall trends) published in 2016, which showed that based on data from 64,000 injured cyclists the risk of head injury reduced by 51%, severe head injury by 69%, facial injury by 33% and fatal injury by 65%.

Despite the seemingly logical conclusion, that ‘wearing protection, offers protection’, there is an evidence-backed logical ‘other side’ to the argument.

For those against

Arguably, the most prominent proponents for the ‘other side’ of the argument are Cycling UK and Chris Boardman. Their stances focus largely on health in a wider sense – that the benefits of cycling outweigh the risks, and according to one estimate, the benefits outweigh the risks by 20:1. They say that mandatory helmet use would prevent people from cycling, as documented by a study in Australia after a mandatory helmet law was introduced in Melbourne – they argue that this is more detrimental to health as a whole, since the risk of injury is relatively low.

Some proponents use the same data to argue that there is safety in numbers, and that anything done which reduces the number of riders on the road therefore impacts the safety of the cyclists who remain on the road.

Although neither of the advocates named above appear to strongly argue that helmets are not effective at the task they were designed to accomplish, with Cycling UK concluding that “it is possible that helmets might perhaps provide some limited protection in the event of certain types of impact occurring (e.g. minor falls)…” there is some evidence which suggests that drivers might be less generous with the amount of room they provide when passing, if you are wearing a helmet, in turn increasing the risk of collision and therefore injury; there is also evidence that wearing a helmet can lead to increased risk taking on the part of the person wearing the helmet. So you could argue, that wearing a helmet is less safe – if you were so inclined.

What does the law say?

With the scientific jury out, as to whether you should wear a helmet, or not, what does the law say?

There is no mandatory requirement for cyclists to wear helmets in England or Wales, unlike their two wheeled counterparts – motorcyclists – who have been obliged to wear protective headgear since the introduction of the Motor Cycles (Wearing of Helmets) Regulations 1973 – a piece of legislation that was debated in the house of commons, and considered by some to be a ‘gross infringement of personal liberty’, at the time.

Despite this, the Highway Code does recommend that ‘you should wear a cycle helmet that conforms to current regulation, is the correct size and securely fastened’ (rule 59). “Should” being the key word – advisory, rather than mandatory.

What about making a claim?

Not wearing a helmet does not stop you from being able to make a claim for your injuries if you have been involved in an accident. However, a Defendant might argue that an injured person would not have been injured, or as severely injured, if they had been wearing a helmet and that any compensation they are awarded should be reduced to reflect this (this is known as contributory negligence). In order to succeed in this argument, the Defendant will have to prove their allegations, possibly with the support of expert evidence.

There is no set rule on the impact of a cyclist not wearing a helmet, however a motorist who has been injured whilst not wearing a seatbelt will receive a 25% reduction in their compensation payment.

In the high court case of Smith v Finch (2009), although the judge expressed agreement with the concept that contributory negligence should apply to cyclists not wearing helmets, he found that the Defendant was unable to prove that the lack of a helmet caused or contributed to the brain injury which Mr Smith suffered.

There are so many factors that contribute towards an injury or the severity of an injury and if a lack of a helmet is to be proved as one, it must be evidenced clearly. It’s therefore easy to see why the impact of not wearing a helmet will differ from case-to-case and depend very much on the precise details of the incident. That’s why it’s important to speak with an expert if you’ve been involved in an accident, to ensure that you receive the compensation that you deserve. At Pryers we have a specialist team of personal injury lawyers, who specialise in all types of road traffic accidents. Email or call us today to see if you can make a claim.

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Robyn Hawxby is a Partner at Pryers Solicitors. She is adept in advising claimants in complex injury claims, as acknowledged in this year's addition of @ChambersGuides.

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