The debate over bicycle helmets has turned ordinarily easy-going people into the Rush Limbaugh’s and Bill Maher’s of city planning. One side advocates for requiring all cyclists to wear helmets as a basic safety measure; their opponents purport that not only do helmet requirements discourage cycling, but that the simple act of wearing one constitutes a risk to the rider. While both sides make compelling arguments, there is little discussion regarding the fundamental duty we have to not harm others through our actions and inactions. Both sides may be surprised to find that courts might take helmet use into account when deciding who should pay for some or all of the damages resulting from a driver hitting a cyclist.
While they laudably promote better urban design as the ultimate solution for risk reduction, many anti-helmet advocates tend to criticize helmet laws as being ‘nanny-state’ policies that further the government’s overreach to interfere with personal choice. In light of this standpoint, it’s surprising that neither side spends much, if any, time addressing the unexpected financial harm that helmet-free cyclists can pose to others.
Statistics indicate that helmet regulations reduce the number of cyclists on the road due to the additional burden on cyclists. When fewer cyclists are on the streets, drivers are less aware of cyclists and take fewer precautions, which ultimately undermines the safety of those cyclists. Evidence also shows that helmets cause both cyclists and drivers to undertake riskier behaviors. This is a classic psychological conundrum known as the Peltzman Effect; when given more safety equipment, people are more likely to act in riskier ways, thereby undermining the safety benefits of the equipment. Traffic psychologist Ian Walker took more than 2,300 measurements and found that when he wore a helmet drivers were more likely to travel closer to him.
All of this presents a convincing argument for better urban design, not helmet laws, as a means of making the streets safer for cyclists and drivers. Cities should employ a combination of shared streets and segregated cycle tracks to work towards a comprehensive infrastructure equally inclusive of alternative transport modalities that forces cars to drive more slowly and give deference to pedestrians and cyclists. This would increase the perception of safety and encourage more people to choose alternative modes of transport, which, in turn, would force drivers to be that much more cautious.
Anti-helmet advocates often deride helmet laws as nanny-state initiatives designed to limit your freedom of choice through unwarranted government intervention. As the argument goes, the government shouldn’t be able to dictate what actions individuals take as a means of protecting against harms that individuals will cause to themselves. The same argument was, of course, used to challenge seat belt laws.
While it’s generally the case that a cyclist rarely causes direct harm to another by not wearing a helmet, their lack of protection can still cause indirect harm to others. This cyclist could have children or other dependents who will be financially and emotionally harmed by the cyclist’s injuries. The un-helmeted cyclist could also cause additional financial harm to a driver who has accidentally hit them.
The discussion of the helmet debate in many articles often lacks any thoughts regarding tort liability. When a cyclist is hit by a driver and sustains injuries, the cyclist will often sue the driver to recover money for damages sustained. State laws will ultimately decide whether the cyclist or driver bears the burden of paying for damages that could have been prevented had the cyclist been wearing a helmet.
While anti-helmet advocates point out convincing evidence that helmet laws and helmets themselves do not always prevent injury or death, there is little debate that helmets prevent some injuries and deaths, particularly in low-speed collisions and collisions that involve direct impacts to the head.
Should a driver be found liable for damages sustained by a cyclist in an accident, the driver may be able to introduce evidence that the cyclist was not wearing a helmet as a means of reducing the amount of money they owe to the cyclist. The theory being that a reasonable cyclist should have taken the basic precaution of wearing a helmet and the helmet would have prevented some of the damage caused to the cyclist. While not all states permit this evidence, some will.
In Nunez v. Schneider, the US. District Court for the Northern District of New Jersey provided a succinct overview of the debate. Courts that do not permit the evidence often point to the lack of a state helmet law to show that a cyclist cannot be required to be aware that failing to wear a helmet would prejudice their legal interests. The Court in Nunez, though, roundly rejected this argument showing that we often require people to take certain actions even though the state has not explicitly required those actions. During our daily lives, we have some expectation that people are taking reasonable precautions to protect themselves in ways that aren’t necessarily prescribed by law. Basic common sense applies.
Courts in other states, though, have reached the opposite conclusion. Some state legislatures have passed laws preventing helmet evidence from being introduced in the same way some states have prevented evidence of drivers not wearing seat belts from being introduced. So even if a helmet or a seat belt would have prevented harm to the injured party, a driver is barred from introducing such evidence.
If a driver who is accidentally hit sustains additional injuries due to not wearing a seat belt, would it be just to make the other driver pay for those additional injuries? In the event of an accident, seat belts, like helmets, may inflict damage to the wearer; both, however, often prevent life-threatening damage.
A truly ‘non-nanny state’ would involve the government taking no part in requiring helmets or seat belts while also taking no part in crafting evidentiary rules to aid non-helmet and non-seat belt users during litigation. When an accident occurs, any available evidence could be used to show fault and to calculate damages. If such a state is desired then cyclists should be fine with drivers being able to potentially reduce their damages by showing that a cyclist failed to wear a helmet and that the helmet would have prevented some of the damage.
Ultimately streets and communities need to provide a much better user experience for cyclists and pedestrians. However, we do require people in society to take basic precautions to look out for themselves and in most instances wearing a helmet while cycling would be considered a basic precaution. Helmets should be treated as a last line of defense and should not encourage cyclists to be less cautious or to undertake riskier behaviors. Any initiative to encourage bicycling should include a campaign to make helmets more available, particularly in low-income communities. Whether we have a helmet law or not, we can probably agree that the debate between helmeteers and helmet-haters would largely be a moot point if communities designed for a more accessible, approachable infrastructure for cycling and walking.