Should safety trump religious freedom?
That sensitive topic is being broached by the provincial government as it prepares to debate making turban-wearing Sikhs exempt from current motorcycle helmet laws.
Bill 194 seeks to amend the Ontario Highway Traffic Act to allow Sikh motorcyclists who have unshorn hair, or habitually wear a turban, to ride helmet-less.
In August 2014, Premier Kathleen Wynne told the Canadian Sikh Association that an exemption would “pose a road safety risk.”
“Ultimately, the safety of Ontarians is my utmost priority, and I cannot justify setting that concern aside on this issue,” Wynne wrote.
Sikhs are allowed to ride without a helmet in British Columbia and Manitoba.
Manohar Singh Bal, of the Sikh Motorcycle Club, thinks it’s time for Ontario to join them.
“Whatever we do in life, the turban is an integral part of me as a human being,” he said. “Religiously speaking we are not to remove the turban or put anything on top of it.”
Bal says there’s no evidence that accidents, or health care costs, increase in jurisdictions that have exemptions.
“We think this is more an issue of religious freedom, rather than a safety concern,” he stressed, adding that the exemption would not include the 400-series highways.
Minister of Transportation Steven Del Duca released a statement on the issue, saying the Liberal government would not support the exemption.
“Based on relevant academic research and key legal decisions, it continues to be our position that granting this type of exemption would pose a road safety risk,” he said.
While some on social media flat-out rejected the idea, others were more open to the change, with @nfitz1 saying, “It’s been long accepted that requiring Sikhs to remove turbans is racist. I think society can survive no helmets.”
— nfitz (@nfitz1) June 14, 2016
The stats may suggest otherwise.
Mortality rates have gone down by 30 per cent and head injury rates by a more substantive 75 per cent since helmet laws were implemented.
Full statement from Minister of Transportation Steven Del Duca:
Our government recognizes the importance of preserving the fundamental right of religious expression. This right is a key pillar of our democracy but this right must also be balanced with public safety.
Ontario’s helmet requirements are based on extensive research that clearly illustrates the high risk of injury and death for motorcyclists who ride without a helmet. In jurisdictions where legislation requires motorcycle helmet use, mortality rates for motorcyclists have gone down 30 per cent, and head injury rates have gone down 75 per cent.
Prior to the 2014 provincial election, Premier Kathleen Wynne committed to providing a response to the Canadian Sikh Association on the government’s position regarding an exemption from the use of motorcycle helmets on religious grounds. We very carefully considered the soundness of accommodating this type of religious exemption. The issue of balancing religious accommodation and public safety has also been considered by the Ontario courts which found that Ontario’s mandatory helmet law does not infringe on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, nor the Ontario Human Rights Code.
Based on relevant academic research and key legal decisions, it continues to be our position that granting this type of exemption would pose a road safety risk. Ultimately, the safety of Ontarians is this government’s utmost priority, and we cannot justify setting that concern aside on this issue.