To wear or not to wear a cycling helmet: the legal position
Road traffic collisions are a major cause of head injury. Promoting road safety is important to me because as a brain injury solicitor I see the life changing effects head injuries have on my clients every day.
I’ve written a number of blogs about road safety law and I’ve taken an interest in the debate on whether cycle helmets ought to be worn. There are good reasons for and against. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has prepared a useful summary. I won’t go through the reasons for and against wearing cycle helmets. Instead, I set out the legal position on wearing a cycle helmet to allow you to make an informed decision. At the end of the blog I discuss how new helmet technologies may change the law.
Knowledge Affects Behaviour
Cyclists are vulnerable road users sharing the road with multi tonne metal vehicles. From my experience few drivers know the law has long recognised drivers are in control of potentially dangerous weapons and places a high burden on them to avoid collisions with vulnerable road users. If more drivers knew this they would drive more carefully. When deciding whether or not to wear a cycle helmet it is important to know the potential legal consequences of doing so.
The Legal Position on Cycle Helmets
There is no legal requirement to wear a helmet. There are however consequences for not wearing a helmet.
If you are cycling and are injured due to another person’s fault you would be able to claim compensation. If you suffer a brain injury and are unable to work or look after yourself the value of your claim will be high. With this in mind it is important to know if you don’t wear a helmet, in some circumstances, the law may reduce your compensation. If this happens you may not recover enough money to meet your future needs, with devastating consequences.
The starting point is the Law Reform (Contributory Negligence) Act 1945. Under this Act, if you suffer damage as a result of your own fault and the fault of another, your compensation shall be reduced in proportion to your responsibility for the damage. For this to happen it must be shown you failed to take reasonable care for your own safety and this failure contributed to your damage. This is known as contributory negligence.
In Smith v Finch  the cyclist (C), was not wearing a helmet and was struck by a motorcyclist on the road. The court found the motorcyclist to be at fault for the collision. When considering contributory negligence, the court noted the Highway Code recommendation “you should wear a cycle helmet which conforms to current regulations” and found not wearing a helmet exposes a cyclist to the risk of greater injury; therefore it would not be sensible to not wear a helmet. If you don’t wear a helmet it is likely a court will find you failed to take reasonable care for your own safety. The next issue for the court was to decide whether a failure to wear a helmet contributed to the cyclist’s serious head injuries. The court looked at whether a helmet conforming to BSEN 1078 would have made a difference. Helmets meeting this standard provide good protection as long as the impact speed is 12mph or less and the impact location is above the test area. The cyclist in this case was travelling faster than 12mph and the impact location was the back of head, below the lower edge of a cycle helmet. The court found wearing a cycle helmet would not have made a difference. There was no contributory negligence and C’s compensation was not reduced.
In Reynolds v Strutt & Parker LLP  the court found there was contributory negligence. In this case the cyclist (C) was at a work activities afternoon and took part in a cycle race around a country park. There were 12 cyclists involved, only one (not C) wore a helmet. C lost control, came off their bike and sustained permanently disabling brain injuries. The court found C’s employer to be at fault for failing to properly assess the need to require helmets to be used and failing to communicate this to the participants. When considering contributory negligence the court followed the approach in Smith v Finch . The court held C would have been aware helmets were available, if only because they had seen one other rider wearing one; and the obligation to wear a cycle helmet applied just as much here as it did on roads. The court went on to accept the speed at which C struck the ground was within the effective safety range of cycle helmets and if C had been wearing a helmet they would not have the sustained injuries they did. The court found C ⅔ to blame and reduced their compensation by the same amount. Personally, I consider this apportionment harsh and the same split is unlikely to happen in a collision on a road between a vehicle and cyclist. Nonetheless, this serves as an example of what a court may find if a helmet is not worn. C suffered lifelong injuries and a ⅔ reduction to their compensation will have left them significantly prejudiced.
To Wear or Not to Wear a Helmet
If you are involved in a collision and do not wear a helmet; and wearing one would have avoided your injury; it is likely the court will make a finding of contributory negligence. If so, your compensation will be reduced. As it stands this is the law and you ought to be aware of it when deciding whether or not to wear a helmet.
New Helmet Technology and Contributory Negligence
BSEN 1078 was first published in 1997 and adopted as the European Standard in 2012. Prior to BSEN 1078 many cycle helmets were made to Snell B95 standard which is more stringent and provides protection against higher impact velocities. It can be said BSEN 1078 was a step backwards for safety.
BSEN 1078 is 24 years old. Helmet technology and our understanding of how impacts cause brain injury has advanced since then. In April 2021, researchers at Imperial College published a fascinating study on how effective new helmet technologies are at reducing brain injury. This study compared conventional helmets to four new helmet technologies: MIPS (multi directional impact protection system); WaveCel (has a liner which mitigates head rotation); SPIN (has shear pads to mitigate head rotation); and the airbag helmet Hovding 3.0. This study tested impacts at different angles at 14mph to simulate a fall on asphalt at a common cycling speed. It also measured rotational forces, which we now know is a key determinant of brain injury. The study found new helmet technology provided better protection than conventional helmets.
If the court were to apply higher helmet safety standards this could lead to more findings of contributory negligence because it would be more likely that wearing a helmet would avoid injury.