A Sore Subject!

This is taken from an old post of mine on my employer’s website but these arguments still continue. Should you or shouldn’t you wear a helmet when cycling?

I wrote this article following the death of lifelong cyclist Margaret Nicholl, 67, who was killed as a result of head injuries sustained when she was thrown from her bike after hitting a pothole.

Nicholl was out riding with her husband when her cycle struck a pothole on a descent. She was thrown to the ground, hitting her head. Her husband found her lying unconscious having suffered severe head injuries.

Neither Mr nor Mrs Nicholl wore a helmet as they had read that they were not effective when riding at over 12mph. The Coroner recorded a verdict of accidental death.

Margaret Nicholl’s plight highlighted a number of issues to cyclists, both the serious menace that potholes represent to cyclists and other road users – but also importantly, whether or not a helmet should be worn.

Road defects can form quickly in wet and icy weather, causing the road surface to deteriorate rapidly.

National cyclists’ organisation CTC created the “Fill That Hole” website in January 2007 to help the reporting of potholes and road defects to the relevant local council. The site also includes a map of known hazards.

But should you or shouldn’t you wear a helmet? Whether or not cycle helmets should be worn, whether or not they affect the outcome of accidents and whether or not their lack of use should be an issue, are worrying questions for cyclists.

Parliament has, as yet, refused to legislate on the issue. However, the Highway Code recommends their use. Rule 59, the first of the specific rules for cyclists, states:

Clothing – You should wear

  • a cycle helmet which conforms to current regulations
  • appropriate clothes for cycling. Avoid clothes which may get tangled in the chain, or in a wheel or may obscure your lights
  • light-coloured or fluorescent clothing which helps other road users to see you in daylight and poor light
  • reflective clothing and/or accessories (belt, arm or ankle bands) in the dark.

There has been some research into the issue of wearing a helmet and the primary conclusion appeared to be “For most of the accidents which result in more serious head injuries, it is concluded that wearing of a cycle helmet would have a beneficial effect. Furthermore, cycle helmets have the potential for preventing fatal head injury” It also notes that “A good Cycle Helmet would be expected to prevent fatal head injuries in accidents in which a Cyclist, travelling at speeds of up to 15 mph falls from his/her bicycle and impacts against a road surface or kerb”.

However, some of the research studies have been strongly criticised by the “non-helmet” lobby, most cogently on the extensive website http://www.cyclehelmets.org.

The current standard for cycle helmets, the European EN 1078, is meant to provide protection from a fatal head injury when the cyclist falls onto a flat surface at no more than 15 mph. Therefore, as soon as an accident involves a cyclist travelling at a greater speed than 15mph at the time of impact or colliding with something other than a flat surface (be it a moving vehicle or a lamp post) then it may be that even a correctly worn and correctly adjusted cycle helmet can provide limited protection.

Indeed, how may cyclists actually wear a cycling helmet correctly?

The views of the experts are polarised. Studies support and condemn cycle helmets.
So, should you or shouldn’t you? Wearing a cycle helmet must remain a matter of personal choice. Reported cases dealing with cycle helmets are few and far between.

In the recent High Court case of Reynolds v Strutt & Parker LLP (2011), a cyclist’s compensation for his brain injury was reduced for not wearing a helmet.

In 2008, Simon Reynolds took part in a “team building day” organised by his employers, Strutt and Parker. The events for the day were kept secret, but employees were given a choice of categories, and Reynolds chose to be “active and energetic“. When he arrived at the event’s location he was told that there was going to be a cycle race, so he took one of the bikes provided, ignoring a rack of cycle helmets. Some 25m from the finish line he collided with another competitor and fell off, sustaining brain damage.

Reynolds sued his employers for compensation. The Judge, Oliver-Jones QC, found Strutt and Parker liable for the accident, largely because they had failed to conduct an adequate risk assessment for the cycle race.

However their liability was reduced by two-thirds because of Reynolds’ “contributory negligence” in two respects: firstly he had cycled in a dangerous manner which brought about the collision, and secondly he wasn’t wearing a helmet.

Although it’s not currently an offence to ride without a helmet, the decision not to wear a helmet can have legal consequences for cyclists who sustain head injuries and claim for compensation. Although Reynolds was injured in a workplace event, the court’s decision could apply in the same way to normal road cycling.

This was the first occasion where the courts have reduced a cyclist’s compensation in this way, but it seems to be part of a wider trend in the law’s attitude towards helmets.

It has been suggested that deductions for not wearing a helmet are now common in out-of-court settlements of head injury claims brought by cyclists.

And when cases have reached the courts in recent years, the courts have held that cycling without a helmet is negligent (at least for the purposes of contributory negligence), largely because it involves ignoring the Highway Code’s recommendation that “you should wear a cycle helmet which conforms to current regulations, is the correct size and securely fastened“. This conclusion was first expressed in the 2009 case of Smith v Finch.

Previous court decisions involved collisions with motor vehicles, at speeds higher than those at which helmets are tested, so the courts didn’t have sufficient evidence that a helmet would have made a difference to the head injury. As a result they couldn’t make reductions in the compensation awarded to the injured cyclists. Reynolds’ case was different because the impact speed was likely to have been within the range at which helmets are tested.

For the moment, the Reynolds case might encourage motor insurance companies to routinely seek deductions when settling head injury claims with cyclists who didn’t wear helmets.

It may also be more likely that courts will award less compensation in the future to other cyclists who suffer head injuries at “low impact speeds” while riding without a helmet.

But if cycling at a reasonable speed, or impacting on a moving object, the combined impact speed could be in excess of 15mph, therefore would a cycling helmet offer protection in any event?

The CTC has long campaigned against helmet laws with the central argument that the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks by around 20:1.

Whether or not you choose to wear a helmet must depend on both the rider and the type of cycling you choose to do. Personally, if I am out for a gentle ride on the local trails or with my son at the park, I won’t insist that helmets are worn. But if I am out on the roads, I will always wear my lid, even if the protection it gives might be limited. That limited amount of protection, for me, might be enough to spare me from a significant injury.

So, the choice of wearing a cycling helmet remains yours!


Author: HawickBalls

Cyclist Fundraiser for Macmillan Cancer Support. Exiled Teri ..

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