How Bicycle Helmet Laws Affect Liability in Personal Injury Accidents

Most state’s bicycle helmet laws apply to children under 18 years old. Adults are not generally required to wear helmets, although more and more cities and counties are enacting helmet laws applicable to adults. Always check your state, county, and city’s traffic code if you’re unsure about the law.

Bicycle-Car Collisions

The first issue in a bicycle-car collision is the type of injuries you suffered. If your injuries weren’t to your head or neck, whether you were wearing a helmet or not doesn’t matter. Helmets are meant to protect you from head and neck injuries only.

If your injuries were to your head and neck, helmet use will be an important factor in settlement negotiations with the insurance company. This is especially true, if at the time of the collision, you were violating your state’s bicycle helmet laws.

The next issue is liability, and whether the collision was caused by:

  • The driver’s negligence
  • Your negligence
  • A combination of both

If you were not wearing a helmet in a state, county, or city in which it was required for your age group, your claim negotiations will be negatively impacted. The claims adjuster will say your violation of the helmet law contributed to your injuries.

The adjuster will likely try to use your violation of the law as leverage, by claiming not wearing a helmet was a comparative factor in your injuries. Even in areas without a helmet law, the adjuster may still attempt to reduce the settlement offer.

Insurance claims adjusters have access to bicycle helmet statistics, previous court decisions involving car-bike collisions, and other evidence proving that wearing a helmet reduces injuries. Adjusters use this information to convince claimants their own negligence renders them at least partially liable for their injuries.

Comparative Negligence

Comparative Negligence (or Fault) means a person’s own actions contributed to his or her injuries. “Comparative” refers to the degree of that contribution. There are several versions of comparative fault laws currently used in the United States:

Example: Cyclist’s comparative negligence

John was riding his bike when he was hit by a car that failed to stop at a stop sign. At the time of the collision, John was wearing headphones and listening to loud music on his iPod. He filed a claim for his injuries, and the damage to his bicycle, with the driver’s auto insurance company.

The claims adjuster argued John could have avoided the collision if he hadn’t been distracted by the music. He stated, “Our insured may be 70 percent liable for the collision, but your negligence in wearing headphones makes you 30 percent liable. Therefore, our settlement offer is reduced accordingly.”

John suffered $10,000 in damages. The insurance company only paid $7,000, citing the comparative negligence rule.

Helmet Use and Litigation

A claims adjuster knows, if your case can’t be settled and goes to trial, any helmet law violation or comparative negligence can be used against you. Even if you were injured in a state, county, or city without a helmet law, the judge may allow evidence of your not wearing a helmet as proof of your own negligence.

If a judge permits the jury to consider evidence of your comparative negligence, such as not wearing a helmet, it will affect their decision. They may render a verdict:

  1. Reducing your negligence to an amount less than the adjuster said it was;
  2. Reducing your negligence to the same amount the adjuster said it was;
  3. Increasing your negligence to an amount greater than the adjuster said it was;
  4. Totally ignoring the issue of comparative negligence; or
  5. Finding you were 100 percent responsible for the collision, giving you no compensation. (Attorneys refer to this verdict as getting “poured out” by the jury.)

The issue of comparative negligence finding its way into a jury charge has a lot to do with the evidence admitted at trial. Some judges allow testimonial and documentary evidence of comparative negligence, others don’t.

Before beginning deliberations, the judge will tell the jury (in the “court’s charge”) whether or not they can consider the issue of comparative negligence. For instance, the judge in the iPod distraction example could instruct the jury that they may not use the fact that John was wearing headphones as evidence of negligence.

Local Bike Helmet Laws

There is currently no federal law governing the use of bicycle helmets. Individual states have the right to decide if they want to create bike helmet legislation. Moreover, each county and city has the power to enact their own helmet laws as they see fit. The result is a big mix of different laws across the United States.

It’s important to know your state and county’s bicycle helmet law. Laws are always subject to change, so you should frequently check your area’s traffic code to be sure you’re in compliance.

Here’s a complete, updated list of state, county, and city helmet laws.

What To Do if You’ve Been in a Bike Collision

  • Call 911
    Calling 911 as soon as possible after a collision is essential. Police officers and paramedics will respond to the scene of the accident, and create a report that you can later use as evidence.
  • Don’t refuse on-scene medical care or transport to the hospital
    A physician should evaluate you to confirm if you’ve been hurt. The pain of serious injuries can be masked by the rush of adrenaline after a collision.
  • Make sure the driver stops
    In most states, failing to stop and render aid after a collision is a felony. If the driver fails to stop, take down or memorize as much of the license plate number as possible. Try to remember the make, model, and color of the car. Ask someone to help if you’re incapable.
  • Get the driver’s contact and insurance information
    You need to write down all the information on the driver’s insurance card. Make sure you get the policy number and any other contact information. Also get the driver’s address, telephone number, and email.
  • Look for witnesses
    Witness statements can be invaluable tools in establishing liability. Find anyone you can who’s willing to give a statement. Ask them to write down what they saw, and to sign and date their statement. Don’t forget their contact information.
  • Take photographs
    If you don’t have a camera, use your cell phone. Take photos of the accident scene, including any skid marks, broken bicycle or car parts, guardrails, street signs, etc. If the accident happened in a state or county with a bicycle helmet law, have someone photograph you wearing your helmet.
  • Write a detailed summary of the collision
    Write down important information immediately after the accident. Note any admissions the driver makes, such as, “I’m so sorry,” or “I didn’t see you.” In most states, these statements can be admitted into evidence as exceptions to the hearsay rule, called Admissions Against Interests.

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