Riding or religion: motorcyclists protest helmet exemption

A number of motorcyclists depart Lacombe en route to the Alberta Legislature on Saturday afternoon as part of a Civil Disobedience Rally protesting the Traffic Safety Act exemption which allows turban-wearing Sikhs to ride without a helmet. Ashli Barrett / Lacombe Globe

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A group of bikers against the helmet exemption for Sikhs in Alberta believe a choice should be made between riding and any religious practice barring the use of a helmet.

Or, at the very least, they’d like to see the exemption expanded so every has the right to choose to ride lidless or not.

A group of just over 30 like-minded bikers gathered at Michener Park in Lacombe Saturday as part of a Civil Disobedience Rally. The rally would see them ride from Lacombe en route to the Alberta Legislature in protest of the exemption – one they say is unfair and discriminatory.

“We were watching individuals getting pulled over, voicing their displeasure on Facebook and other media sources. An individual doesn’t make that much of an impact, but if we could get a group together to make a point, we could make a point and ride lidless,” said Keith Wegner, one of the organizers of the event.

“Our civil rights are being stepped on daily and this is just another step down a slippery slope.”

Just over 30 bikers turned out to the Civil Disobedience Rally at Michener Park in Lacombe to protest the Traffic Safety Act exemption which allows turban-wearing Sikhs to ride without a helmet. The rally saw bikers ride from Lacombe to the Alberta Legislature, but making several stops along the way, including in Bentley, Crestomere and Ponoka. Ashli Barrett / Lacombe Globe

Changes to the Traffic Safety Act which enabled members of the Sikh religion to ride motorcycles and off-highway vehicles without a helmet were made in April of this year, making Alberta the third province behind B.C. and Manitoba to give such an exemption. Those who qualify under the exemption must identify as Sikh, and be wearing a turban.

Sikhism is the ninth largest religion in the world, and more than 52,000 people identify as being Sikh in Alberta – the third highest population in Canada.

Turbans are seen as being integral to their identity, and as hair and its protection are of great importance, covering it is a show of respect towards their god.

Despite there being a religious rationale behind the exemption, however, many people still believe the law should affect everyone equally.

“Religion and politics are not supposed to mix,” said Wegner. “It has nothing to do with us being against the Sikhs – it has to do with the government dividing us and making them the exception.”

He said if safety was truly a concern in the eyes of the law requiring all but the Sikh community to wear a helmet while riding, then the exemption shouldn’t have been granted at all.

“When an individual group gets to ride without and wear a head dressing that is not a helmet, it automatically isn’t a safety issue. It can’t be a safety issue or else we all ride with them,” he said.

Some of those participating in the rally chose not to wear helmets as part of the protest, and instead sported baseball caps with a red turban with the word ACME on the side – what they call a “tongue-in-cheek” reference to the products that often foil Looney Tunes’ Wile E. Coyote and his attempts to catch and eat the Road Runner.

“It offers at least the same protection as what a turban offers a Sikh,” said Wegner. “If I’m wearing this, I should be as safe as them riding with their headgear.”

Jannaleigh Miller, right, rides out of Lacombe en route to the Alberta Legislature without a helmet as part of a Civil Disobedience Rally Saturday, held in protest of the Traffic Safety Act exemption which allows turban-wearing Sikhs to ride without a helmet. Ashli Barrett / Lacombe Globe

Shortly after noon, the group hit the pavement, hoping to make stops in Bentley and Ponoka on their way to Edmonton. However, as per a Facebook Live video posted by Wegner’s fellow organizer and Lacombe resident Jannaleigh Miller, they had only been on the road about five minutes before they were stopped by police outside the Lacombe County Office – a mere six kilometres away – where warnings were issued.

They were also stopped in Crestomere and Ponoka as well, where tickets were doled out.

Many of those riding were expecting to be given more than one ticket during their journey – a fine of $155 per ticket. They hope to fight the tickets as part of a further statement against the helmet exemption.

While turnout was lower than expected due to cool and wet conditions, Wegner said he was still pleased with the turnout they had.

“It really shows the resolve of the people involved and it is something that needs to be paid attention to,” he said.

“We need to make a change.”