Ontario court rejects religious exemption to motorcycle helmet law
Globe and Mail Update
March 6, 2008 at 10:20 AM EDT
A devout Sikh who challenged an Ontario law requiring all motorcycle riders to wear a helmet on provincial roads has lost his court case.
Ontario Court Judge James Blacklock ruled today that while the law prohibiting anyone riding a motorcycle without a helmet does violate his right to freedom of religion, it's justifiable in terms of the benefit that society gains in possible reduced health costs and the possible loss of people's loved ones.
"Given the nature of Mr. Baljinder Badesha's beliefs, which foreclose him from wearing anything over his turban, and yet the unquestioned safety and related issues, this is one of those cases in which, unfortunately, no accommodation appears possible," Judge Blacklock ruled.
Mr. Badesha told reporters he was not particularly disappointed and that he and about 25 supporters who showed up for the decision will lobby politicians to change the law.
Enlarge Image Baljinder Badesha, reflected in a rear view mirror at right, rides a motorcycle without a helmet near his Brampton car dealership last month. (J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail)
From the archives
- He did laps at 110 km/h to prove turban held tight
- Globe editorial: Helmets for all, Sikhs included
- Online debate now: Panel tackles same-sex marriage, religious accommodation
He said he hasn't decided yet whether to appeal. He has 15 days to do so.
Judge Blacklock ruled: "Helmets appear to me more likely than not to substantially reduce the risk of head injuries and death to motorcycle riders.
"It is certainly clear that in permitting Mr. Badesha and all Sikh adherents who hold his religious views to ride motorcycles without a helmet would not achieve the same level of safety for them.
"The same level of protection against emotional trauma and economic turmoil would certainly not be available to their dependents and loved ones.
"The same level of safety would not be achieved for other users of the road who happen to be around them."
The court was told earlier that Mr. Badesha raced a motorcycle around an Ontario speedway to test whether turbans unravel at high speeds.
The bizarre image of Mr. Badesha's experiment last year -- conducted under the auspices of the Ontario Human Rights Commission -- was evoked during his constitutional challenge to a law that forces motorcycle riders to wear a helmet.
Judge Blacklock was told that, in order to disprove a Crown theory that turbans unravel at high speed and cause accidents, Mr. Badesha drove around Cayuga Speedway at 110 kilometres an hour.
His turban held fast.
Mr. Badesha and the human rights commission maintain the helmet law discriminates against Sikhs because their religion obliges them to cover their long hair with nothing more than a turban.
"Observant Sikhs are put in the impossible position of choosing between ordinary, everyday activities and observing their faith," said lawyer Scott Hutchison, who is representing the OHRC. "That is religious discrimination."
Mel Sokosky, a lawyer for Mr. Badesha, said his client is far too religious to consider compromising his beliefs. "Mr. Badesha's desire is not a trivial pursuit," he said. "This is not a game he is playing. He isn't here to waste the court's time. This is a matter of primary importance to Mr. Badesha."
In an interview, Mr. Hutchison said the Cayuga turban test became necessary after the Crown declared that an expert it had hired proved that turbans unravel rapidly in 100 km/h winds.
The Crown's test had been carried out by a professional engineer who purchased a mannequin head, mounted it on a stick and then placed the assemblage in a wind tunnel.
However, Mr. Hutchison was unable to find a documented case anywhere in the world where a Sikh motorcyclist's turban had unravelled. Skeptical, he persuaded the OHRC to authorize its own test.
After he confronted the Crown with the dramatically different test result, prosecutors conceded that their engineer had grossly miscalculated the force of the wind he had generated to batter the imitation head, Mr. Hutchison said.
In fact, the device had been subjected to a 300 km/h wind.
Mr. Badesha, a 39-year-old father of four who immigrated to Canada in 1989 and had been an avid motorcyclist in his native India, said in an interview yesterday that he was charged in mid-2005, about a month after he purchased his 2003 Honda Shadow.
He noted that Sikh soldiers have never worn helmets, and argued that Sikhs should be left alone to make their own decisions about motorcycle gear.
"Who cares?" Mr. Badesha said. "Everybody ends up dead anyway. People die in cars too. In life, you have to take risks, no matter what."
While the Crown case initially questioned the sincerity of Mr. Badesha's religious convictions, its main argument is now based on increased costs to the health system, should helmet-less Sikh motorcycle riders end up suffering head injuries.
Mr. Hutchison and co-counsel Owen Rees disputed this contention yesterday. They pointed to a study they had done that concluded that, assuming half of all Sikh motorcyclists wear turbans, the increase in serious injuries would be between .43 and 2.83 Sikh riders a year.
The study also projected that medical treatment for traumatic brain injuries would increase from $151,700,000 to $151,834,685 — a .00005-per-cent overall increase in the province's annual health-care budget.
Judge Blacklock ruled today that helmet-less riders "do pose added health-care costs to what, in Ontario, is a public health-care system.
"Moreover, the evidence before me shows that these costs, with respect to even one rider, can be meaningful.
The judge said he had reservations about a lot of the statistical data brought to him by both sides in the case but added he found it meaningful that several U.S. studies have shown significantly higher injury rates and health-care costs for helmet-less motorcycle riders.
"In a Michigan study of hospitalized motorcyclists conducted over roughly a four-year period, helmet-less patients were found to cost an average of $6,000 [US] per patient more than helmeted riders in hospital costs alone," the judge said in his decision today.
Earlier, during the hearing, Mr. Hutchison told the court that the province already licenses motorcycle riders in spite of the fact that they have far more accidents than automobile drivers.
"Clearly, the decision to allow motorcycles to be used at all recognizes and accepts a significant degree of risk and concomitant social cost," he said at that time.
India and Britain exempt Sikhs from wearing helmets, as do Manitoba and British Columbia, where a human-rights challenge precipitated the exemption.
Judge Blacklock's decision today acknowledged that Manitoba and B.C. have both created exemptions that allow Sikhs to ride motorcycles without helmets.
But he remarked that the court decisions which led to those exemptions might not still hold true if they were re-tried under recent Supreme Court jurisprudence.
Judge Blacklock said the prospect of severe brain injury if the exempt were allowed is not speculative.
"We are talking about the certainty of brain injury, some of them severe."
The judge placed great emphasis on the fact that while a particular motorcycle rider might be unconcerned about the prospect of a serious injury to their own person, the ripple effect on children, relatives and friends is certain to be devastating.
"The raw numbers of deaths, injuries and public dollars are, however, only a part of the story in this situation.
"Behind those numbers rests the devastation, experienced at an individual human level, whenever the avoidable loss of life of a family member occurs.
"Children can be scarred long-term by having a parent suddenly and prematurely taken away from them.
"Spouses are bereaved and can be left economically crippled.
"A parent who buries a child when the death could have been avoided could be emotionally adrift the rest of their lives."