The Federal Administrative Court [Bundesverwaltungsgericht] – which sits in Leipzig and is not to be confused with the Federal Court of Justice [Bundesgerichtshof], which sits in Karlsruhe – held on 4 July that it is obligatory in Germany to wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle and that there is no religious exemption for devout Sikhs wearing turbans.
In July 2013, the plaintiff applied to the City of Konstanz for an exemption from the obligation to wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle on the grounds that he was obliged to wear a turban for religious reasons and the obligation violated his religious freedom as a devout Sikh under Art. 4(1) of the Basic Law [Grundgesetz]: “(1) Freedom of belief and of conscience, and freedom to profess a religious or philosophical creed, shall be inviolable.” His application was rejected on the grounds that a waiver could only be granted for health reasons. The Administrative Court of Freiburg rejected his subsequent complaint and his appeal to the Higher Administrative Court [Verwaltungsgerichtshof] of Baden-Württemberg was also dismissed.
On 4 July, the Federal Administrative Court rejected his further appeal. The duty imposed by § 21a(2) of the Road Traffic Regulations [Straßenverkehrs-Ordnung] to wear a suitable protective helmet when riding a motorcycle might indirectly affect the plaintiff’s freedom of religion as a devout Sikh, but it did not hinder him in the practice of his faith: when complying with the obligation to wear a turban for religious reasons, he would have to forego riding a motorcycle.
Though freedom of religion was protected by Art. 4 (1) of the Basic Law, the restriction was justified in principle because it served other legal interests of third parties that were also protected by constitutional law. The obligation to wear a helmet was not only to protect the motorcyclist but also to protect the physical and psychological integrity of others involved in an accident and of rescue-workers: someone might be traumatized by accidental death or serious injury caused by a motorcyclist not wearing a helmet. Further, however, the Court made the slightly more controversial assertion that in the event of an accident a motorcyclist in a helmet would be more likely to be able to help rescue other people, such as by securing the scene of the accident, providing first aid or calling the rescue services.
In conclusion, a claim for exemption from the obligation to wear a helmet could only legitimate if, at best, the person concerned could not be expected to refrain from riding a motorcycle for special reasons. The claimant, who had a licence to drive a passenger car and had a delivery van, had not provided any information demonstrating any such reasons.
Comment: Compare with s.16 Road Traffic Act 1988 (Wearing of protective headgear):
“(1) The Secretary of State may make regulations requiring, subject to such exceptions as may be specified in the regulations, persons driving or riding (otherwise than in side-cars) on motor cycles of any class specified in the regulations to wear protective headgear of such description as may be so specified.
(2 )A requirement imposed by regulations under this section shall not apply to any follower of the Sikh religion while he is wearing a turban.”
One cannot help wondering if the case will go to Strasbourg.
[Prepared from the Court’s press release: the judgment is not yet available online.]