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Not wearing a helmet could affect your cycle accident claim

by Nicola Selby-Short

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It's hard to believe that it's only 27 years since it became compulsory to use seatbelts in the front of vehicles.

No-one today would question the effectiveness of seatbelts in reducing serious personal injury claims or be surprised that statistics show that proper seatbelt use reduces fatal accidents by 60%.

However, it seems evidence on the benefits of wearing a cycle helmet is conflicting.

Cyclists are the most vulnerable of road users. In 2008 a total of 115 cyclists were killed and 2,450 badly hurt in Britain, accounting for 9% of all major road injuries. Around one third of cyclists on main roads wear helmets, while the proportion involving commuters in London is believed to be much higher.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) recommends that all cyclists wear a helmet, because in its view a correctly worn helmet reduces the risk of receiving major head or brain injuries in an accident.

However, it also make the point that the most effective ways of reducing injuries to cyclists is to improve the behaviour of drivers and cyclists, and by providing safer cycle routes.

Research concludes that a good cycle helmet would be expected to prevent brain injury and fatal accidents in which a cyclist, travelling at speed of up to 15 mph, falls from his or her bicycle and impacts against a road surface or kerb.

In London however, most cyclist deaths involve collisions with HGVs, from which helmets give no protection. Fatal accidents involving head injuries typically involve rotational forces which cycle helmets can't prevent. To the contrary, some doctors have expressed concern that cycle helmets might make some injuries worse by converting direct (linear) forces into rotational ones.

Furthermore, most fatalities involve multiple injuries, and deaths solely due to head and brain injury are unusual. The benefits of a helmet have to be balanced against the potential for the helmeted head to incur more impacts due to its increased size compared with an unhelmeted head.

Many feel that motorists take less care around cyclists wearing helmets – they are more aware of the cyclist whose face and head is fully visible.

The anti-helmet lobby argues that many cyclists find helmets hot and uncomfortable, and that helmets laws have been shown to be counter-productive where they discourage cycling sufficiently for the loss of health and social benefits from reduced cycling to outweigh gains from fewer head injuries.

So what is the state of the law in the UK?

Whilst the Highway Code recommends that cyclists should wear a cycle helmet which conforms to current regulations, Britain has not yet joined Australia, America, Canada and, earlier this year, Jersey, in making cycle helmets compulsory.

However, in March 2009  Mr Justice Williams made it clear that whilst a cyclist was free to chose whether or not to wear a helmet,  by not doing so, any personal injury sustained may be the cyclists own fault, and he would have only himself to thank for the consequences. He thereby established the principle of contributory negligence for cyclists who ride without a helmet.

Whilst undoubtedly much must depend upon the circumstances of a cycle accident, and the extent of which, in a particular case, the failure to wear a helmet contributed directly to the injuries suffered, the wearing of a cycle helmet is increasingly becoming a preliminary litmus test in settlement negotiations in cycle accident claims.

Users of London's new bike hire scheme, due to begin this summer, will not be required to wear helmets. For the present, whether or not to wear a cycle helmet remains a matter for personal choice.

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