By MATHEW DEARNALEY
Cyclist Patrick Morgan has won a rare exemption from having to wear a helmet by claiming it gives him migraine headaches.
In fact, the Wellington man says his head hurts just thinking about the regulation, which requires most cyclists to wear helmets or face $55 fines.
"I get a headache whenever I think about the harmful and wrong-headed helmet law," he told the Herald yesterday by cellphone from his bicycle, after hearing that the Land Transport Safety Authority had granted him an exemption on medical grounds.
He first sought an exemption under a "reasonable grounds" category but was turned down and then lost a court challenge to the authority's ruling.
But armed with a doctor's certificate, he reapplied on medical grounds and won.
A member of the Cycle Health group, he claims any injuries prevented by helmets are far outweighed by their harmful effects in turning people off cycling.
He says helmets create a dangerous illusion of safety and they may encourage risk-taking and exacerbate brain injury in serious accidents by adding bulk to a cyclist's head while offering little real protection.
Safety authority spokesman Andy Knackstedt said his agency did not fear a rush for exemptions.
"I think the vast majority of people accept the fact that helmets protect them," he said.
"There is no evidence that the helmet law discourages cycling or harms the health of New Zealanders - there is evidence that it has contributed to a reduction in cyclist head injuries."
He did not know how many exemptions the authority had granted in recent times, but produced figures showing that 58 were issued in the five years to 2000, compared with 11 declined applications.
Applications were mainly on medical grounds, such as having too large a head to carry a helmet, or a hypersensitive scalp.
But nine applications were on religious grounds, on which Green MP Nandor Tanczos relied to gain an exemption because a bicycle helmet would not fit over his dreadlocks.
Sikh Society Auckland president Daljit Singh said members of his faith were similarly exempt because of their turbans.
The British Medical Journal noted that death and head injuries among cyclists in Victoria in Australia fell between 37 per cent and 51 per cent in the year after helmets were made compulsory in 1990, but a reduction in cycling was even greater.
Mr Morgan said he believed this experience was repeated in New Zealand after helmets became mandatory in 1994, which researchers here have claimed, resulted in a 24 per cent to 32 per cent reduction in hospital admissions of cyclists with head injuries.
* The rules requiring cyclists to wear helmets allow exemptions on three grounds: medical, religious or "other reasonable grounds".
* Of 69 applications for exemption in the five years to 2000, 58 were granted.
* Among reasons for seeking exemptions were:
Headaches and/or claustrophobia 13
Large head 9
Hypersensitive scalps, eczema, heat, sunburn 9
Personal desire not to wear one 6
Respiratory problems and asthma from strap 2
Believe wearing a helmet to be a breach of human rights1
Causes glasses to mist while riding and cannot see 1