Do you have to wear a bike helmet?

28 Feb 2023 | Sam Collard
road cyclists

Should bike helmets be mandatory in the UK?

Recently, Dan Walker was involved in a nasty collision with a motorist while riding his bike. The incident left the former BBC breakfast presenter with a bruised and bloodied face but luckily, he escaped without suffering any head injuries. Praising his helmet for saving his life, Walker has suggested a new slogan for cycling campaigners – “Don’t be a helmet, wear a helmet.”

While there’s no doubt that cyclists are vulnerable when sharing the road with fast-moving cars and multi-tonne HGVs, the debate around helmets is far from clear-cut. Some believe they are an integral component of road safety and cyclists shouldn’t leave home without one. Others, including former racing cyclist Chris Boardman, said the focus on helmets is a distraction from better things we could be doing to make the roads safer for cyclists.

The safety data is complicated

There are good reasons for and against wearing helmets on the roads.

ROSPA, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, cites a number of studies to show that cycle helmets can significantly reduce the risk of direct-impact injury to the head, brain and upper face, by as much as 88% in some cases. We won’t go through all the studies here but there’s plenty of data to support the safety – and often life-saving – aspect of cycling helmets. For example, the Dutch Road Safety Research Foundation estimated that there would be 85 fewer fatalities per year if all Dutch cyclists wore helmets. For context, the number of cyclist deaths in the Netherlands hovers around 200 each year, so that’s a 42% decrease in deaths.

However, while the protective ability of helmets is improving all the time, we’re not at a point where helmets are effective in every scenario. Multiple studies show that cycle helmets offer decreasing protection the faster the cars get and are of little use in collisions with cars travelling at more than 31 mph.

Another interesting study from the Netherlands found that 13.3% of Dutch cyclists who were hospitalised after an accident were wearing helmets, despite fewer than 1% of Dutch cyclists wearing helmets overall. So the jury’s out on whether helmet use leads to safer cycling.

Legislation may discourage people from cycling

What happens when you force cyclists to wear helmets? Evidence from Australia and New Zealand suggests that helmet-wearing is a barrier to cyclists and could hurt cycling numbers overall. In both countries, the number of people cycling dropped by up to 23% when mandatory helmet laws were introduced. The same cannot be said for countries that don’t require helmets – the Netherlands is famous for its high rate of bike use despite the absence of a helmet law.

A drop in cycling activity is associated with fewer people engaging in physical activity which can have negative health impacts. But perhaps more significantly, it undermines the “safety in numbers” effect – the idea that the more people there are on bikes, the safer it is to be on a bike. That’s because motorists are more aware of cyclists and take greater care.

This has prompted some to question whether we should be focusing less on the helmet debate and more on improving road safety, for example, by widening cycle lanes and creating more cycling paths to separate cyclists from fast-moving traffic.

Cycle helmet law in the UK

Wearing a helmet whilst cycling is not a legal requirement in the UK. Both Transport for London and the Highway Code do recommend helmets for cyclists, but it’s not mandatory. As things stand, adults have the freedom to make their own choice about whether or not they want to wear them.

However, there may be consequences for not wearing a helmet.

If you are injured when cycling and it is someone else’s fault, you would be able to claim compensation. For serious injuries, such as a lifelong brain injury where you are unable to work, the amount of compensation can be significant. But it’s important to know that the court could reduce your compensation if you were not wearing a helmet and the court believes this contributed to your injuries. This is known as contributory negligence.

Contributory negligence is a common defence strategy in cycling compensation claims. If it’s argued, the court will consider whether you failed to take reasonable care for your own safety and, if so, what would have happened had you been wearing a helmet. The court has the power to reduce your award to reflect your portion of responsibility. For example, if the court thinks that not wearing a helmet made you 50% responsible for your injuries, then it will reduce your award by 50%.

Each case is decided on its own facts. The courts will consider the type of road, traffic speed, nature of the impact and so on, to determine if wearing a helmet would have made a difference. But the bottom line is, you may not recover enough money to meet your future care needs if you are found to be contributorily negligent, which can be devastating.

To wear or not to wear a helmet

We acted for a claimant who suffered a serious head injury in a bicycle accident. The defendant’s lawyers contended for a 25% reduction in damage because he was not wearing a helmet, but to succeed with that claim they had to show firstly that he owed a legal duty to wear a helmet and secondly that a helmet would have prevented the injury.  There is currently no good legal precedent that a cyclist is mandated to wear a helmet (although it is encouraged as a good and safe practice), and secondly, the impact was to the front of the head – an area where a helmet offers little protection – and so the defendant was not able to show that a cycling helmet would have made a difference.

It’s impossible to come to a definitive conclusion on whether cyclists should wear helmets or not. The evidence is inconclusive and there are valid arguments both for and against wearing them. But if you are involved in a collision and do not wear a helmet, and wearing one would have lessened your injury, you could be faced with the consequences of reduced compensation. Ultimately, it’s up to every individual cyclist to know the risks and decide for themselves.

How Osbornes Law can help?

Our expert cycling accident lawyers can help if you have been involved in a collision. Our dedicated team will work to ensure you receive the appropriate medical care and financial compensation, taking into account and time of work and additional travel expenses you may have incurred. We specialise in helping people who have suffered life-changing injuries after a crash, including brain and spinal injuries. We are the exclusive legal partners of the London Cycling Campaign and have been advising their members for nearly 10 years.

To find out if we can help please fill in the form below and a team member will be in touch.

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