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Turbans and Bike Helmets

Summary: Turbans don't substitute for bike helmets. That can make it very difficult for those who must wear a turban for religious reasons to use helmets. There is a headscarf workaround for Sikhs called the PATKA, but it may not be practical when bikes are used for transportation.

In several jurisdictions where helmet laws have been considered or passed, there have been protests by local residents of the Sikh faith that a turban is an integral part of their religious precepts but cannot be worn under a helmet. Sikh soldiers refused to wear helmets during World War I and World War II. They fought with turbans on their heads. In the 21st century some Sikhs are taking off their turbans, but most have not.

Australia was the first to face this problem back in the early 1990's, and some Australian states granted a special exemption to their helmet laws for Sikhs. In the intervening years we understand that at least some of those exemptions were dropped because "it was not a problem." In 2013 the issue surfaced in Australia again, with this newspaper story indicating that an exemption would be permitted in Queensland, and that the exemptions in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia are still legally effective.

Some accommodation with the practice has developed. "During swimming and sports, the Turban is replaced by a small scarf called 'PATKA' or handkerchief which is knotted at the top to keep the hair intact. In fact PATKA is becoming more popular with young Sikhs at school." This quote come from Canteach, a Canadian site. Otherwise, most Sikh men still wear the turban as a sign of their faith.

The ASTM headgear subcommittee has discussed the problem but has never had a suggestion for a design that could accommodate a Sikh turban, nor for a standard that could be used to certify such a design. Devout Sikhs do not ever cut their hair, and the hair is wound on the head beneath the turban, adding another fit variable. We have not seen anything in the literature or on the Internet indicating that anyone around the world has been able to solve the problem.

One Canadian test lab tested a Sikh turban for impact characteristics, and found that they probably would not provide much impact protection, certainly not enough to approach the performance of a helmet meeting any of the national or international bicycle helmet standards.

The Queensland Transport and Main Roads Ministry is quoted in the same newspaper article cited above as saying:

"In a 2010 study conducted by Sydney's Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, it was found that...the forces transmitted to the head at comparable impact energies, when wearing a Sikh turban are almost five times greater than wearing a helmet, for the major part of the head area."

Turbans may vary according to regional styles, and can differ considerably in size, shape, density and other characteristics, so it would be difficult to design a helmet to fit over or under them. A turban-shaped helmet is probably not a viable option even if it were acceptable to Sikhs, because the traditional Sikh turban is meticulously wound, and it would be difficult for a turban wearer to remove their turban, ride in the helmet, and rewind the turban after the ride. Winding a turban over a helmet would eliminate ventilation and result in a very large headgear, while still requiring that the normal turban be taken off to ride.

Our conclusion has been that lawmakers should either grant Sikhs a formal exemption, as some have, or expect that a law-abiding Sikh covered by the law will not be able to ride legally unless they compromise their religious precepts and remove the turban to put on a helmet. Law enforcement for most helmet laws is sporadic at best, and if the law does not provide an exemption for turban-wearers it is likely that law enforcement officers will simply let them ride on without interference. That is not the same thing as a legal exemption, but it preserves the Sikhs' ability to use bicycles at their own risk of head injury.

This page was revised or reformatted on: February 22, 2019.
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