Motorcycle Helmets and Sikh Religion

Motorcycle helmets are widely cited as a lifesaving piece of equipment, however helmets are considered to be in direct violation of a Sikh religious dictate which states that Sikh men must not wear any head covering other than the Sikh turban. When the government introduced legislation which required all motorcycle riders to wear helmets, they were forced to consider Sikh religious rights.

UK legislation states that all motorcycle riders and passengers must wear a helmet whilst the vehicle is in motion. However, changes to the law mean that Sikh riders are exempt from these rules on religious grounds. Sikh riders who routinely wear a turban as an expression of their religious beliefs cannot be fine or charged with a motoring offence if they fail to wear a helmet whilst riding their motorbike.

The Motorcycle Helmet Law was introduced in 1973, taking effect in June of that year. Motorcycle helmet use was first recommended for motorcycle riders in the late 1930’s after the death of T.S. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). Neurosurgeon Hugh Cairns, who was one of the doctors who attempted to treat Lawrence after his accident, began a lifelong study into the possible benefits to riders of wearing a crash helmet whilst riding.

Based in part on the recommendations of Dr Cairns, the British Army mandated that all Army riders must wear helmets whilst they were on duty. It is believed that this motion helped to significantly reduce the number of fatalities amongst Army riders during World War II and in subsequent years. However, the success of the Army order did not translate into national legislation, and laws failed to pass in 1956 and 1962. The Bill on Motor Cycles (Wearing of Helmets) was eventually passed in 1973, despite some notable exceptions, including those raised by notorious MP Enoch Powell.

The bill which was passed to enable Sikhs to be exempt from helmet legislation was introduced by Sydney Bidwell MP. He was the elected representative of Ealing-Southall constituency, where a large number of British Sikhs lived. A number of his constituents had contacted him to advise that they were having difficulties complying with both British legislation and their religious obligations to wear a turban whilst out in public. Sydney Bidwell MP agreed that the legislation was obstructing his constituent’s rights to freely practice their religion.

The MP was able to argue that many Sikhs had fought for the British Army in wartime and they had not been required to wear additional safety gear at this time. If Sikh people had been willing to die in the name of the British Empire, he argued that Britain should not ask them to break one of their primary religious commandments in order to be able to ride a motorcycle. He also argued that leeway was allowed in other areas, in regards to Sikh workers being asked to wear personal protective equipment in factories.

Some Sikhs argued that the helmet requirement was a direct Human Rights violation, because the legislation was preventing them from meeting a fundamental Article of Sikh Religion. They were able to provide examples of other countries which allowed Sikh residents to be exempt from helmet laws, including Australia, Canada and America.

The hard work of Sydney Bidwell MP and hundreds of Sikh campaigners allowed the amendment to be passed through parliament. A formal amendment was made to the Road Traffic Act to ensure that Sikhs could continue to use motorbikes without any helmet regulations being imposed on them by the law. Non-practicing Sikhs who do not wear a turban must still wear a helmet whilst they are riding on a motorbike.