Cycling Distractions and Contributory Negligence
Whether taking part in amateur exercise or professional training, cyclists need to have an understanding of many factors to be considered safety conscious and even then, external factors such as other road users can have an impact on the precautions they need put in place.
When an accident occurs the precise mechanics of the accident can be complex, for example, the relative speeds of the vehicles, the quality of tyres and the circumstances behind the collision. However, liability for an accident can also turn on distractions to the rider and this evidence can be crucial to any defendant who wants to reduce the damages paid by arguing that the claimant was contributorily negligent i.e. partly to blame for the accident.
If you have experienced an unfortunate cycle accident and need legal advice then it is crucial to use the services of a lawyer who specialises in cycling claims. It is very likely that a judge will not have any expertise in cycling and it is therefore essential that a specialist lawyer is instructed to guide a judge through the complexities of the physics behind the accident.. Otherwise , without such guidance, there is a risk that a judge will not have sufficient understanding of the technical elements of the accident and will significantly reduce a claimant’s damages.
Distractions to cyclists can include listening to music through headphones or where a speed monitor or a heart rate monitor is checked, altered or re-set whilst moving. The cyclists eyes might be taken off the road and this can reduce a cyclist’s reaction time to any unexpected obstacles. There are also other distractions to cyclists which may not be so obvious. For example, when cyclists ride in a peloton, a group of road cyclists, distractions can occur when trying to merge or pass through the group.
Whether these distractions amount to contributory negligence have been subject to consideration by the courts. For a reduction to be applied, a judge must firstly establish that the injured cyclist must have been at fault in some respect. The second requirement is that the cyclist’s fault must have contributed to their injury to the extent that if the cyclist had not been at fault, the injury would have been avoided or less severe.
A recent decision heard in the High Court in Northern Ireland found that a cyclist should have his damages reduced as his actions amounted to contributory negligence. Mr McAllister was awarded £70,000 when it was found that Mr Campbell drove his car in front of Mr McAllister on his bike causing significant injuries. It was found that Mr Campbell was negligent in either forgetting about the cyclist or disregarding his presence.
However, Mr Justice Stephens found that Mr McAllister had contributed to the crash by looking down at his heart rate monitor. This glance down amounted to a distraction and the damages awarded were reduced by 25% from £70,000 to £52,500. Mr Justice Stephens commented that the cyclist should have been looking at where he was going and not at the heart rate monitor and, “if he had been he could have braked or taken evasive action”. The distraction therefore significantly reduced his entitlement. It is consequently not unimaginable that similar distractions such as looking at a speed monitor or listening to a personal stereo will also be found by the court to amount to contributory negligence.
Another type of distraction that has been recognised by the courts is cycling in groups. In Thomas v Warwickshire County Council  EWHC 772 an experienced cyclist sustained a significant head injury when he fell from his bicycle after encountering a spillage of concrete in the road. It caused him to lose control of the bicycle and he hit the road losing consciousness. Thomas was riding with a cycling club with approximately 20 cyclists in ranks of two. The Judge held that the concrete posed a serious hazard and it should have been removed by the Local Authority before the accident as it was reasonably foreseeable that a cyclist would lose control of his bicycle, fall off and be injured if it came into contact with it.
The Judge assessed that the 5 to 6 inch distance between Thomas and the cyclist in front was not a safe distance to have sufficient time to make adjustments to his course to avoid him running into the concrete spillage. Therefore the presence of surrounding cyclists in a closed formation can potentially constitute a distraction. Consequently contributory negligence was assessed at 60%. The decision provoked criticism  from cyclist enthusiasts and experts who suggested that this distance was normal practice and therefore should not have amounted to contributory negligence. This case highlights the importance of seeking advice from specialists with knowledge about cycling practices.
Contributory negligence has also been established in other cycling cases. In Reynolds v Strutt & Parker LLP  EWHC 2263 an injured cyclist was found two-thirds contributorily negligent when a collision occurred where a cyclist had a reckless disregard for his own safety and others around him and the cyclist was not wearing a helmet. However in the case of Smith v Finch  EWHC 53 the court refused to allow a claim of contributory negligence where a cyclist had not been wearing a helmet where significant evidence was adduced to support the fact the helmet probably would not have prevented the injuries sustained. In Malasi v Attmed  EWHC 4083 a cyclist had their damages reduced by 80% for failing to comply with a red light which caused them to be hit by an oncoming car.
The National Cycling Charity (NCC) has campaigned  to have the policy of the law changed so that findings of contributory negligence are exceptional and not found against cyclists who ride without a helmet, without high-visibility clothing, or for technical breaches of the Highway Code’s non-statutory rules for cyclists.
Despite the NCC’s efforts, courts have shown a willingness to make reductions in damages to cyclists in appropriate cases. Therefore, advice should be sought from lawyers who specialise in cycling claims. The cases before the courts are very much “fact sensitive”, so for the common law to develop in relation to cycling, specialist lawyers are needed to shape the law in an positive way for cyclists.
Other sources: Westlaw; The National Cycling Charity Website