LETTER: Helmet rules need to be reformed

THE viewpoint of September 28 noted that cyclists suffering head injury when not wearing a helmet could face reduced compensation (so-called ‘contributory negligence’ in legal jargon).

What is not made clear is that this is a gross injustice, since the principle does not rest on any objective basis.

The Highway Code recommendations on helmet wearing date back some 20 years, to a period when little was known about either the (actual) risks of cycling, or the (actual) protective effects of helmets.

In the last decade, better transport data has allowed more accurate understanding of risk in cycling. It is now clear that urban cycling is actually a fairly safe activity by any reasonable standards. The risk per mile travelled is lower than for walking. Young people face higher risks when driving than when cycling – and when driving they are in addition a serious cause of death.

Twenty-three per cent of all road deaths occur in crashes involving 17 to 24-year-old drivers. It is thus unwise to convince young people they are safer driving. It is evident that cycling is not perceived to be safe, but the Highway Code is supposed to be based on more than opinion.

Concerning the effectiveness of helmets to prevent injury, it is true that in the 1980s and 1990s, very high protection was predicted by medical research.

Yet, after-the-fact studies in countries where helmets were made compulsory has failed to find evidence of serious head injuries being noticeably reduced by mass helmet use. The only reductions found have been in scalp wounds. It turns out the earlier medical research was flawed. These results are well-supported in papers published in the British Medical Journal in recent years. Individuals in the unfortunate position of facing accusations of contributory negligence are advised to obtain legal advice from the leading cycling organisations prior to accepting any reduced compensation. They should also make their case known to their MP and emphasise they are victims of discrimination.

In summary, the Highway Code was based on bad science and institutional attitudes. It is out of date and must be reformed.

Malcolm Wardlaw

Edinburgh