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KARLSRUHE Germany (Reuters) - Germany's highest court of appeal ruled on Tuesday that cyclists who sustain head injuries in an accident are not automatically considered partly responsible if they were not wearing a helmet.
The ruling, which overturned a controversial lower court decision, means cyclists can choose not to wear a helmet without fear of any financial disadvantage in case of a crash.
Helmets are not compulsory in Germany and only 15 percent of cyclists wear them.
The Federal Court of Justice ruling concerned an accident in April 2011, when a 61-year-old woman cycling to work was thrown from her bike when a passenger in a parked car suddenly opened the door as she passed.
The woman suffered serious head injuries and spent months in hospital. The car owner's insurance company claimed she bore some responsibility for her injuries because she wasn't wearing a helmet, and wanted to reduce its payout by 20 percent.
A local court in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein agreed with the insurance company and reasoned that "a decent and reasonable person would wear a helmet to decrease the risk of injury". The woman appealed the ruling to the federal court.
The German Cyclists Association (ADFC) welcomed Tuesday's ruling. Its National Director Burkhard Stork said, "the 30 million people that cycle everyday can decide for themselves if they should wear a helmet or not."The cyclist lobbying group encourages voluntary helmet wearing. It says the safety benefits of basic bicycle helmets are not as clear as those of seat belts or motorcycle helmets.
Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt agreed, saying: "Helmets can provide security and reduce injuries in the case of accident... but we want freedom of choice to be the main focus."
In Berlin, where cyclists with and without helmets dart across the city daily, opinion was mixed. Ludwig Wright, a young helmet-wearing cyclist, said he believed people should be free to decide because compulsory helmet wearing could reduce the number of cyclists, such as he said happened in Australia.
Tabitha Ludek said she opposed a helmet law because it would mess up her hair. "I don't think you should always have to wear a helmet, especially not for shorter distances," she added.
A Swedish company called Hoevding developed an airbag in 2013 to replace the traditional bike helmet in response to just such fashion concerns. The catch: it costs about 300 euros ($410), compared to about 30 to 60 euros for a helmet. ($1 = 0.7345 Euros)
Reporting by Anja Nilsson and Norbert Demuth; Editing by Alexandra Hudson and Tom Heneghan