Have there ever been two words that spark more controversy in the world of cycling?
The argument itself is fairly simple – wearing a helmet helps protect against serious brain damage in the event of a crash. It is straightforward that having some protection around your head will help mitigate any damage. It’s a cry that is seen and heard everywhere helmets are discussed – “A helmet saved my life!”
However, not everyone agrees that the benefits of wearing a helmet are quite so clear. Dr Rune Elvik, an expert in risk analysis, conducted a meta-analysis of previous bike helmet studies and found that, on review, “no overall effect of bicycle helmets could be found when injuries to head, face or neck are considered as a whole” Damaged Cycle Helmet
A study published in the British Medical Journal (2013) examined the effect of a mandatory helmet law in Canada, and found that its impact on head injuries from cycling was minimal. Indeed, by the manufacturer’s own admission, cycle helmets are only designed to withstand impacts at 12mph or below, which massively limits their application.
Furthermore, Martin Porter QC writes that “most neurosurgeons will accept that a helmet may avoid lacerations or a skull fracture or an extradural/subdural haematoma but few will argue that they can protect against coup or contre-coup type injuries or diffuse axonal injury” These are essentially injuries whereby the brain collides with the inside of the skull due to an abrupt deceleration of the body.
The debate on the inherent safety of a cycle helmet seems unlikely to reach a conclusion, but there are other aspects of the debate which offer more circumscriptive potential. The call for mandatory helmet laws is oft-repeated, and in countries such as New Zealand, failure to wear a helmet will cost you a $55 infringement fee and a maximum $1,000 penalty upon conviction. Here in the UK, such laws are discussed on a fairly regular basis.
These laws can be problematic though, as they do not always work as intended. The introduction of helmet laws in New Zealand and Australia resulted in a significant decrease in the amount of people cycling, especially among teenagers. Cycling regularly carries with it a huge health benefit. Conservative estimates put the overall benefit:cost ratio of cycling at 20:1, meaning that the drop in cycling associated with mandatory helmet laws would come at a cost for society overall. This effect is widely acknowledged, with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents’ campaign manager Michael Corley stating that “We do not believe it is practical to make the use of cycle helmets mandatory.”
The discussion of a helmet’s merits is not limited to the sphere of public health. Claims for compensation arising from traffic collisions are often resolved in civil courts, where negligence is a determining factor in the outcome of the case. In incidents involving cyclists, it could be argued that failing to wear a helmet might be considered negligent.
The case of Smith vs Finch (2009) set an interesting precedent for this. Smith, a cyclist, had been hit by Finch, a motorcyclist, when Smith had been turning right and Finch had attempted an overtaking manoeuvre. Both parties were claiming for personal injury, loss, and damage, with Finch claiming contributory negligence as a factor in the extent of Smith’s injuries. The proposed reasoning was that if a passenger can have awards of compensation reduced to reflect their contributory negligence for not wearing a seatbelt, then a cyclist could be for failing to wear a helmet.
Mr Justice Griffiths Williams was of the opinion that "the cyclist who does not wear a helmet runs the risk of contributing to his/her injuries.” However, he also ruled that this condition only applies if it can be clearly demonstrated that the injury suffered would have been mitigated by a helmet. He notes that given the speed of the collision – which was well above the 12mph limit – and the type of head injury suffered, a helmet would not have prevented the damage, and so Smith was not found have contributed to his injury for failing to wear a helmet.
Oliver-Jones QC whilst ruling on Reynolds v Strutt and Parker (2011), reduced the defendant’s liability in part because of the cyclist’s failure to wear a helmet, providing another precedent.
This does demonstrate an important factor to consider when deciding on the merits of wearing a helmet. If you are injured in a collision whilst cycling, and rightly make a claim for compensation, then the absence of a helmet could potentially reduce the amount you receive.
So, whilst it appears that cycle helmets may have some practical safety application, the scientific and legal consensus on both their protective value and their holistic merits is still lacking. Their efficacy remains hotly disputed by scientists and safety experts, and the body of evidence on the matter remains largely inconclusive. However, the legal implications from cases such as Smith vs Finch, and Reynolds vs Strutt and Parker, show that wearing a helmet remains a pragmatic option.
On reflection then, the most prudent advice on cycling helmets is that legislative compulsion is not recommended. In places where it has been attempted, the gains have been at very best, minimal. However, legal precedents clearly rule that in certain types of injury, the absence of a helmet is a determining factor towards contributory negligence. Therefore, wearing a helmet on an individual and voluntary basis, appears to be the option resulting in the least negatives and most positive outcome for the individual ..