Sikhs may no longer have to wear motorcycle helmets in California

Sikhs may no longer have to wear helmets while riding motorcycles in California.

On Wednesday, state senators voted 21 to 8 in support of SB 847, authored by Sen. Brian Dahle (R-Yuba City), which exempts the religious group from wearing the helmets, as long as the rider is wearing a turban, or has a patka, which is a cloth covering over a small, knotted bun on the top of their head.

The bill now moves to the Assembly.

Among the supporters: the Legendary Sikh Riders, the Sikh Legends of America and the Sikh Saints Motorcycle Club. It was opposed by the Auto Club of Southern California and the County Health Executives Association of California. 

Dale Singh, 40, the president of the Sikh Motorcycle Club USA in Stockton said he would be "grateful" if the bill passes into law.

"You'll see a lot more riders in turbans out there," he said.

As for the safety issue?

Singh recalled history where Sikh solders fought in WWI and WWII using turbans to protect their heads. It was good enough then, he said, and so it should be good enough now. 

No other state has a helmet exemption for Sikhs or any other religious group. 

But there are helmet exemption laws for Sikhs in Canada, the United Kingdom and India. 

The purpose of the bill, Dahle wrote in his bill analysis, is to allow Sikhs to freely express their religion. 

While the helmet law doesn't intentionally discriminate against any particular religion, Dahle said that the "reality is that those who practice those religions are limited in how they can express their customs."

Dahle said exempting those who wear turbans from wearing helmets is a "simple way to ensure that everyone's religious freedoms are protected." 

There are several Sikh motorcycle clubs in California. Photo: Dale Singh 

There are roughly 211,000 Sikhs living in California, and observant men are mandated to wear a turban to cover their unshorn hair. A turban is a symbol of humility and the supremacy of God. And just search the internet: There are plenty Sikh motorcycle clubs. 

The issue of safety has long been an issue regarding this topic. 

In 1993, a state appeals court unanimously upheld California’s law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets, concluding that the statute is in society’s best interest and not overly intrusive.

At the time, Associate Justice Sheila Prell Sonenshine of the 4th District Court of Appeal declared that the state has the right to enact restrictions, such as the helmet law, that govern public safety.

The appeals court found that although motorcyclists "may not care if they die in an accident," others who use the public highways "would clearly prefer not to kill them."

Four motorcyclists had sued in Orange County, alleging California's helmet law was unconstitutionally vague and that it infringed on the individual’s rights to privacy and freedom of association.

One of the four plaintiffs, a Sikh, charged that the law interfered with his religion because a helmet does not fit over his knotted hair and turban, which are required by his faith.

The four also charged that the law discriminates against people with disabilities, in particular those who wear hearing aids and those with neck injuries that make it difficult to support weight on their heads.

The state Legislature has the authority to pass a law overriding a court decision.

Still, there is definitely data to show that helmets save lives and prevent more serious injuries.  

According to the Center for Disease Control, more than 5,500 motorcyclists died in 2020 and more than 180,000 were treated in emergency departments after crashes. 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that helmets saved the lives of nearly 2,000 motorcyclists in 2017. 

But it's not like Sikhs can't practice their religion and be safe, if they choose to.

One company in Canada, Bold Helmets, has developed a helmet with a bulge designed to accommodate a hair knot covered by a patka. 

Another company has created an open-source design for a "Tough Turban," which is made of a bulletproof-like fabric to create what the name implies – a tough turban. 

Sikh men are mandated to wear turbans. Many cheer the decision not to wear helmets on motorcycles. Photo: Dale Singh/Sikh Motorcycle Club USA of Stockton 

Members of the Sikh Motorcycle Club USA in Stockton support not wearing helmets on motorcycles. Photo: Dale Singh