In Alberta, Sikhs Can Now Ride Motorcycles Without Helmets (Because of Religion)

Alberta recently became the third province in Canada, after Manitoba and British Columbia, to include an exemption to the law requiring people to wear helmets while on motorcycles. The exemption applies to Sikhs, who traditionally wear a turban.

[Transportation Minister Brian] Mason notes that Alberta has the third highest Sikh population in Canada.

“The Sikh community has urged us to grant this exemption in recognition of its civil rights and religious expression,” Mason said Thursday in a release. “Our government is committed to these principles.”

That sounds good from a religious freedom angle — the exemption means anyone who self-identifies as Sikh and wears a turban wouldn’t be pulled over for not wearing a helmet — but it’s an exemption that’s bound to hurt Sikhs more than help them.

The reason Sikhs want this exemption is obvious: Covering their hair is a major part of their religious identity. Even in the First and Second World Wars, Sikhs fought alongside British soldiers wearing turbans instead of helmets.

But the current traffic safety law is about keeping people safe, and a turban simply doesn’t provide the protection that a helmet does. (It didn’t in the wars, either.) In Australia, where a similar issue has come up before, studies found that turbans were no substitute for a helmet:

“In a 2010 study conducted by Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, it was found that three per cent of helmet wearers sustained serious head injuries, compared to 13 per cent of those who did not wear helmets,” the note said.

“The second study indicated that ‘the forces transmitted to the head at comparable impact energies, when wearing a Sikh turban are almost five times greater than wearing a helmet, for the major part of the head area’.

“On the basis of the evidence regarding the effect of bicycle helmets in reducing head injuries in reducing injuries to cyclists and the lack of protection provided by turbans, this (maintaining the current mandatory helmet policy) is the preferred option.”

Sikhs don’t appear to dispute any of these findings. They’re not making the case that turbans are as safe as helmets. They just don’t give a damn, and they don’t want the government forcing them to do something that violates their beliefs, even in the name of public safety. As one Sikh man told the Edmonton Journal, “This is our religion, this is our pride.”

Famous last words…

I suppose the one reason to offer this exemption is because the lack of a helmet, in the event of an accident, would only hurt the Sikhs who aren’t wearing them. Unlike religious exemptions for vaccines, say, other people wouldn’t be injured because of one person’s irresponsible choice. Though if there is an accident and someone’s not wearing a helmet, the trauma could effect plenty of passers-by… and many Canadians are arguing that risky behavior like this would burden the public health care system and Sikhs ought to be on the hook for their own medical bills in the case of an accident. (That argument, however, leads down a very slippery slope since everyone makes decisions that aren’t necessarily healthy.)

It’s hard to blame the Alberta government for passing this exemption. With more than 52,000 Sikhs, it’s the province with the third largest such population, and officials have little desire to provoke a fight.

But leave it to faith to convince people that laws meant to save their lives aren’t nearly as important as fulfilling a religious obligation. Sikhs are just as likely to crash and injure themselves as everyone else, and when that happens, a turban isn’t going to break their fall. It’s too bad some riders are going to learn this the hard way.

(Thanks to Jadon for the link)

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