Sikh man fighting Ont. helmet law

Sikh man fighting Ont. helmet law

A devout Sikh who is fighting a traffic ticket for not wearing a motorcycle helmet while riding his motorcycle is optimistic a Brampton, Ont., judge will rule in his favour.

Baljinder Badesha, 39, says choosing between his turban and a helmet is denying him the right to religious freedom.

“Everything’s good — we hope everything goes well,” Badesha told reporters after leaving the hearing on Tuesday.

After hearing from both sides, the judge reserved his decision until March 6.

Human rights lawyers are backing Badesha’s fight, saying Sikhs who want to ride motorcycles are forbidden from a “normal social activity” available to all other residents.

“What the state is saying to Mr. Badesha is you have to choose between your religious beliefs or (abstain) in order to ride the motorbike,” Owen Rees, a lawyer with the Ontario Human Rights Commission, told the court during a hearing on Friday.

The helmet requirement under the province’s Highway Traffic Act “discriminates” against Badesha because it violates his constitutional rights, Rees said.

Badesha’s religion forbids him from putting on anything over his turban while outside his house.

Crown lawyers argue helmet laws protect against devastating head injuries and save the public health-care system millions of dollars.

Non-fatal motorcycle accidents can cost the public purse up to $2.4 million, while fatal crashes can cost almost $20 million, according to Crown documents filed with the court.

The defence said the numbers represent only a fraction of Ontario’s $38-billion annual budget for health care.

Scott Hutchison, who also represents the commission, says devout Sikhs represent only 0.2 per cent of Ontario’s population. He said the impact on the health-care system would be minimal.

“There are lots of deaths and brain injuries among motorcyclists wearing helmets right now,” he argued in court on Friday. “If Ontario was serious about (addressing the danger) they would ban motorcycles.”

Badesha, who said he hasn’t ridden his motorcycle since he was ticketed in September 2005, told the judge that 50 motorcyclists die in crashes each year in the province while wearing a helmet.

“The risk of any injury would be remote and nobody will be affected by this,” Badesha’s lawyer Mel Sokolsky told CTV Toronto on Tuesday.

Similar challenges have seen exemptions made for Sikh motorcyclists in British Columbia and Manitoba. The United Kingdom, Hong Kong and India also allow devout Sikhs to forego the helmet.

The judge’s ruling in Badesha’s case would only apply to him. The verdict would not be a blanket exemption unless the Ontario government made the exemption for devout Sikhs law.

With a report from CTV Toronto’s Roger Petersen and files from The Canadian Press