Should we blame the victim of head injuries if they are not wearing helmets for everything they do?
Bicyclists and pedestrians know too well how often the victim takes blame for an accident, sometimes when the victim can no longer argue their side of the case. Now a case going to Germany's highest court has reporters asking whether we should be wearing helmets to walk down stairs, perhaps even while driving a car.
Ask a lawyer a question and there is a good chance the reply will be: "it depends on the jurisdiction." In Germany, a helmet is not required by law when bicycling. The 5-series BMW was illegally parked when the driver unexpectedly opened the door without checking first for the passing bicycle.
Normally, in this jurisdiction, this case would be open and shut. The driver is at fault and their insurance must compensate the victim, who has suffered permanent disabilities, including a permanent loss of taste and smell. But the driver went to court, and the judge decided the bicyclist shares the fault for not wearing a helmet, even though it is not required by law.
Tom Hodgkinson/CC BY-SA 2.0
The pros and cons of helmets continue to stir much debate. Detractors claim the helmets themselves put bicyclists at risk, possibly even making them car magnets. Lobbyists point to the health and ecological benefits lost if onerous helmet laws discourage biking. Advocates might agree that this victim should have worn a helmet.
But all that is not the point. The legal case raises the question of whether the otherwise faultless victim of an accident bears responsibility simply for not wearing a helmet. The German magazine Der Spiegel points out that 1073 people were killed walking down stairs in Germany in 2012 while only 406 died in bicycle accidents on the streets. "Will we soon have to put on a helmet to fetch the potatoes from the cellar?," the reporter quaintly asks.
The article points to a study showing that automobile drivers have a higher risk of head injuries than bicyclists. Is a helmet law for anyone in a moving vehicle the next step?
Lawmakers have weighed the case on helmets. In Germany, they have listened to the bike clubs, and others, who say helmets should remain the option of the cyclist. Even when those self-same clubs strongly advocate wearing helmets, their first priority remains getting cyclists onto the streets and pushing the regulators to build safer infrastructure before trying to protect our fragile flesh from tons of steel with a tiny egg carton on our heads.
It seems a real injustice, then, that the courts can lift the blame from the real traffic violator on the grounds of helmet use. Chalk up another case of blame the victim, and let's hope that the highest court sees fit to send a signal that car drivers cannot escape their responsibilities to the weaker members of the traffic community.