California bill would allow Sikh motorcyclists to ride without helmets

Satnam Singh riding through Highway 99 on   July 31 in Bakersfield.
Satnam Singh travels through Bakersfield as part of a cross-country Ride Against Hate on July 31 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Proposed legislation that would exempt those who wear religious or cultural headdresses — such as a turban or patka — from wearing helmets when riding a motorcycle has cleared the California state Senate.

Sen. Brian Dahle (R-Bieber), who introduced the bill, said he was approached by bikers in the Sikh community who said they wanted the ability to practice their religious beliefs while riding motorcycles. There are no helmets that accommodate headdresses.

“They just want to be able to practice their faith without discrimination, and the Constitution allows us to do that,” Dahle said Friday.

About 211,000 Sikhs live in California, making up nearly half of the nation’s entire community, according to the most recent U.S. Census data.

The bill cleared the state Senate on Wednesday, and now heads to the Assembly.

Eighteen states, including California, have adopted universal helmet laws since a federal safety penalty was repealed in 1995.

The California Highway Patrol enforces the universal helmet law, and violations are punished with a fine of up to $250 and/or a year on probation. Dahle said the rule doesn’t intentionally discriminate against religions, but it limits how certain communities can engage in their customs.


“The turban I tie is about 7 meters. It’s not just a head covering,” a member of the Sikh community said during a Senate committee hearing. “We are not able to ride our bikes and practice our religion.”

According to the Sikh Rehat Maryada, a code of conduct for orthodox Sikhism, men are required to wear a turban as a symbol of humility, and children wear patkas — a cloth head covering secured with strings.

“They aren’t just trying to get an exemption because they didn’t want to wear a helmet,” Dahle said. “It’s very personal to them and their faith.”

The Automobile Club of Southern California opposes the legislation, citing concerns that it would weaken the state’s universal motorcycle helmet law.

“The Auto Club supports helmet laws because they save lives and reduce serious injuries in traffic crashes involving motorcycles,” a spokesperson said in an email statement. “Everyone has a right to self-expression, including while riding a motorcycle or any other form of transportation, but keeping riders safe should always remain a priority.”

More than 5,500 motorcyclists died in 2020, and more than 180,000 were injured in motorcycle crashes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Helmets were found to reduce the risk of head injuries from crashes by 69%.

The County Health Executives Assn. of California also opposes Dahle’s legislation, Senate Bill 847.

“CHEAC understands that wearing turbans and patkas are deeply important religious expressions, and we encourage innovation and equity in the design of helmets to accommodate head coverings instead of weakening existing helmet laws and risking the safety of these riders,” Michelle Gibbons, the association’s executive director, wrote in an email.

Dahle acknowledged concerns about road safety and said motorcycles generally don’t provide much protection, but said his bill’s focus is freedom of religious expression.

“It’s an opportunity to give them the freedoms of their faith and let them live the American dream and ride a motorcycle and not have to wear a helmet that doesn’t go over a turban,” Dahle said.

He said his office has discussed methods to distinguish motorcyclists eligible for the exemption, such as a mark on their license or a box to check on the driver’s application.

According to an analysis of the bill, Sikhs or other groups are not exempt from helmet laws in other states due to religious practices. Several provinces in Canada, including Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and Ontario exempt Sikhs from helmet laws. Exemptions have also been granted in the United Kingdom and India.