Unlicensed motorist convicted for dangerous driving but cyclist 20% to blame for not wearing helmet — a case of bad science in our courts

IMAGE: The junction of the Ongar Distributor Road and Shelerin Road, Blanchardstown, Dublin.

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: A bizarre detail was included in a civil court case against a man who was convicted in 2015 of dangerous driving causing serious harm when his van hit a cyclist — the man on the bicycle was left with a traumatic brain injury and it was reported that his “life and future had been destroyed” but was deemed to be 20% at fault for not wearing a helmet.

Last week The Irish Times and the Irish ExaminerBreakingNews.ie reported:

“In November 2015, Dylan Meade was jailed for one year after he pleaded guilty before Dublin Circuit Criminal Court to dangerous driving causing serious harm, failing to stop after an accident, driving without a licence and driving without insurance at the Ongar Distribution Road, Blanchardstown, Dublin on August 2 2013.”

The case for damages in the High Court last week was against the driver of the van Dylan Meade, An Cosan, Lisbrack Road, Longford, Co Longford and the owner of the vehicle Sabrina McDonagh also of An Cosan, Lisbrack Road, Longford and the Motor Insurers’ Bureau of Ireland over the collision at a junction of the Ongar Distributor Road and Shelerin Road, Blanchardstown, Dublin on August 2, 2013.

The reports also cover how the man on the bicycle, Alexandru Martin Doroscan, suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was thrown eight feet in the air after he was hit by a van.

There was an agreed €3 million settlement, but Doroscan’s legal team told the judge that whilethe other side in the case had conceded liability, it was except for the fact that Doroscan was not wearing a cycle helmet.

They said that while a helmet was not legally required it had to be taken into account in the assessment of damages. The judge was told the lack of helmet wearing would account for about 20% contributory negligence on the part of Doroscan.

But not only are helmets not legally required, helmets are also subject to major scientific debate. And those questioning helmets aren’t quacks but include those who often fight against quackery. Like Ben Goldacre, an epidemiologist who is known for his Bad Science book and column in The Guardian. His battles include fighting against dodgy drug trials, homoeopathy and poor peer review processes.

Writing in the British Medical Journal in 2013, Goldacre, a Wellcome research fellow in epidemiology, and David Spiegelhalter, Winton professor for the public understanding of risk, said: “…with case-control studies, many of which have shown that people wearing helmets are less likely to have a head injury. Such findings suggest that, for individuals, helmets confer a benefit. These studies, however, are vulnerable to many methodological shortcomings.”

The pair concluded: “In any case, the current uncertainty about any benefit from helmet wearing or promotion is unlikely to be substantially reduced by further research.”

Meanwhile, there seems to be a growing understanding that helmets cannot prevent concussions — which can lead to a traumatic brain injury, as is relevant in the Blanchardstown case.

This is explained in fairly easy-to-understand terms in a TedTalk by David Camarillo, an Assistant Professor of Bioengineering and Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University:

Camarillo holds a B.S.E in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering from Princeton University, and a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford. While Goldacre is Senior Clinical Research Fellow at the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine in the Department of Primary Care in the University of Oxford, and a Research Fellow in Epidemiology at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. Epidemiology is the study of the distribution and determinants of health-related states or events in specified populations, and the application of this study to the control of health problems.

Basicly Camarillo is well-placed to know about the mechanics of the brain and helmets, while Goldacre’s profession puts him in a good place to analyse a wider picture than a trauma doctor in an A&E department (the kind of people we’re often told are shocked that people don’t wear helmets).

The “vulnerable to many methodological shortcomings” in pro-helmet studies are compounded by those studies mixing higher speed leisure and racing cycling with cycling to the shops or a average commuting cycle and by the fact that many of the studies are just reviews of previously flawed studies.

The overall body of science is far from approving of helmets and, so, it would be hard to prove one could have helped Doroscan. So, the question is, why are we allowing bad science into our court rooms?

ALSO READ: 6 reasons bicycle helmets shouldn’t be any government’s policy

11 Comments

  1. This is a disgraceful ruling. Helmets don’t prevent concussion. Especially the crappy plastic hats that are on sale for use by people on bikes.

    This ruling should be appealed to the supreme court. If it fails there, then it should be appealed to the European courts as this is discrimination against people on bikes.

    As everyone knows had the victim of this injury been walking (or driving) the issue of a plastic hat would never have been raised. Why are people on bikes being discriminated against?

    And think of it another way; what if the victim of this injury had been cycling along and the perpetrator hit him on the head with a hammer – would anyone have suggested that the victim was somehow contributory to his injury? Of course they wouldn’t, but somehow in this case because the victim was hit on the head with a car – well, somehow that makes him contributory in his injury.

    This is madness and needs to be appealed.

  2. It’s worse even than the article outline – helmets are designed for falls at up to 12mph off the bicycle onto a flat surface. – not for being flung 8ft in the air by a speeding van. There’s no helmet that can protect against that, and the victim’s family should appeal this ridiculous ruling.

  3. I haven’t seen a transcript of the original trial or the civil case and wonder if they have been published yet. I would expect that it will indicate that medical evidence on the extent and nature of Mr Doroscan’s head injury was produced. Presumably, the doctor giving the evidence would be qualified to assess the possible benefits or otherwise of wearing a helmet in this particular case. I am not commenting on the general issue of helmet use nor on the more contentious one of mandatory use but I am very wary of judgements being debunked without access to the full facts.

  4. @Liam
    Regardless of the transcripts there is no way that the issue of a plastic hat would have been brought up if the victim was a pedestrian or even another driver. The fact that this ruling happened in the case of someone on a bike is discrimination and needs to be appealed. The barristers in this case must have done a crap job, because it’s up to them to make the case to the court.

  5. @Liam
    Also on the issue of whether the defense council brought in a doctor to give evidence on the matter: any barrister worth his salt would easily have been able to produce an opposing medical position precisely because plastic bike hats are not rated for impacts with cars, and secondly, even actual proper helmets (not plastic bike hats) don’t prevent concussion. See the recent stories in the NFL in the USA over the whole issue of concussions.

  6. Most doctors are not qualified to give expert evidence on the efficacy of helmets. Like a few other posters, the first thing that occurred to me was whether the same thing would be tried if the guilty party had hit someone in a bar with a bottle and caused the same kind of injuries. After all, even though it is not a legal requirement, had the victim been wearing a helmet they might not have been so badly injured. Seems like negligence.

    BSNYC actually talked about this yesterday and he wondered, since the victim was thrown 8 feet in the air, if perhaps the insurance company couldn’t have save another few hundred grand because the victim wasn’t wearing a parachute.

  7. @Eric
    That’s also true about doctors not being qualified to give expert evidence on the efficacy of helmets. In fact I’d wager that zero doctors in Ireland are qualified to give in-depth knowledgeable evidence on plastic hat efficacy. I say this because zero research has been done on this subject in Ireland. Even specialists in trauma won’t have this expertise. Witness the recent Tweets Prof John Ryan of SVUH (a specialist in trauma) who broadcast on twitter

    https://twitter.com/ryanjtw/status/859703058657406977

    that cyclists should wear plastic hats because of a retrospective survey done at the hospital. However when I looked at the paper

    http://www.lenus.ie/hse/handle/10147/620865

    I saw that the data said absolutely nothing which could have lead him to his conclusion & tweet. Unfortunately this underlies the non-scientific training that medics get. And by ‘non-scientific’ I mean that they’re not trained in science and the surrounding philosophy and methodologies or statistics. A small minority of medics are involved in active research and zero AFAIK in Ireland are involved in research that look at the effectiveness of plastic hats.

  8. This is victim blaming at its worst and should be appealed immediately. The shareholders in the insurance company can sleep well at night safe in the knowledge that their profits are protected by this immoral use of the legal system.Have they no shame.

  9. @Citizen Wolf @ Eric Nolan
    Are you both of the opinion that there are no circumstances where bicycle helmets can help prevent injuries or reduce the severity of an injury?

  10. @LiamE
    Swanky Bicycle Bod said it:
    helmets are designed for falls at up to 12mph off the bicycle onto a flat surface

    In those cases helmets can protect against injury.

  11. @ Pedro,
    Having crashed at approx 35kph and landed on my helmet last year, I have personal experience of how effective they can be in preventing injury.

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