You can recover damages for bicycle accident injuries even if you were not wearing a helmet, but the amount of damages you can collect may be affected. Although there is no statewide law in Washington requiring bicyclists to wear helmets, many counties have adopted mandatory bicycle helmet laws, including all of King County and the City of Seattle. In King County, “any person operating or riding on a bicycle not powered by motor on a public roadway, bicycle path or on any right-of-way or publicly owned facilities located in King County including Seattle, shall wear a protective helmet designed for bicycle safety.” (Code of the KCBOH 9.10.010) Violation of the law can result in a civil infraction and a fine of $30. For a list of counties statewide requiring bicycle helmets, see http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/bike/helmets.htm.
Although violating the helmet law does not necessarily prevent you from recovering damages from the negligent party, every personal injury case is first analyzed based on which party was at fault for the bicycle accident. If you were fault free, you can pursue a claim for damages. If you were solely at fault for the accident (you run a red light or stop sign), you will probably not be successful pursuing a personal injury claim.
Washington law also recognizes the concept of comparative negligence or contributory fault (RCW 4.22.005). Under this law, the 100% liability/fault pie for an accident is allocated between the parties involved in the accident. In a bicycle accident involving just two parties (you and a car), a judge or jury can find you to be 1% at fault for the accident and the other party 99% at fault, or 50/50 or 82% your fault and 18% the fault of the car driver; any division of the 100% liability/fault pie can be made under our State’s comparative negligence laws. Depending upon your percentage of fault, your damages are reduced proportionately by your percentage of fault e.g., if your damages are $1,000 but you are 40% at fault, you only recover $600—$1,000 – $400.
Once liability, or who is at fault, is determined in your case, the next step is figuring out what your case is worth or the amount of your damages. The type of injuries you suffered will also determine whether your failure to wear a helmet affects your damages. For example, if you suffered a broken arm or leg in a bicycle crash, a helmet would not have offered you any protection for these injuries and your failure to wear a helmet would be of little consequence. But if you suffered a head injury and wearing a helmet would have prevented or mitigated your injuries and damages, your failure to wear a helmet, if required, will significantly diminish the value of your claim.
Bottom line: failure to wear a helmet might affect your claim depending on the circumstances; wear a helmet and protect yourself from careless drivers.