Contributory negligence ruling unlikely to affect helmetless cyclists

High Court ruling alters principle but not practice

by Rebecca McIlhone   March 15, 2009  

Merida launch - Tony rides the Scultura Evo [1]

The CTC has responded to a story in The Times about a High Court ruling that cyclists could be held partly to blame in an accident if they fail to wear a helmet.

This weekend’s story appears to revive an earlier story road.cc covered in February regarding cyclist Robert Smith’s succesful claim against motorcyclist Michael Finch, following a collision between the two which left Smith with head injuries and memory loss. Smith was not wearing a helmet.

The judge ruled in favour of Smith’s claim but his comments have caused ructions in the cycling world over their potential to leave cyclists vulnerable to contributory negligence if they choose not to wear helmets.

Although the judge established Smith hit the ground at 12mph, a speed cycling helmets are not designed to sustain, he ruled: “There could be no doubt the failure to wear a helmet might expose the cyclist to the risk of greater injury,” and therefore, “any injury sustained might be the cyclist's own fault.”

The CTC echoes our own thoughts at road.cc that it is difficult to imagine a situation where a cyclist involved in an accident with a motor vehicle would hit the ground at less than 12 mph, so will the ruling ever have practical implications?

Debra Rolfe, campaigns coordinator for the CTC told road.cc: “I think it would be quite a rare case that someone in collision with a car would be hitting the ground at less than 12 mph.

“I think that in the word of the law there are some worrying developments because it does establish the potential for the principle but I think in practice it would be very difficult for a motorist to use this ruling to make a claim for contributory negligence.”

The Times article continues that critics claim there is no evidence the rise in use of helmets has contributed to a decline in cyclists’ deaths. When made compulsory in Western Australia the number of cyclists fell by one-third yet the incidence of head injuries dropped by just 10%.

The article quotes Olympic cyclist Chris Boardman saying: “It’s ludicrous that someone should be penalised for not wearing a helmet. Helmets are not designed to take anywhere near the level of damage incurred in a crash.”

The British Medical Association, which wants cycling helmets to be made compulsory, said: “Doctors working in accident and emergency see at first hand the devastating impacts cycling injuries can have.” 

Read the full Times article here