Should Driving While Wearing Burqas Be Illegal? How About Helmets?

April 26, 2010

Well, here's one that a whole bunch of state motor-vehicle codes probably don't address: Is driving while wearing a burqa a road hazard?

The question arises from the curious case of a 31-year-old Muslim woman fined last week in France for driving while wearing a headscarf. It was reported in some media as a burqa, although that may not be correct.

Hot button in France

Muslim dress has become a hot political issue in France, with laws banning headscarves in certain venues. French president Nicholas Sarkozy has taken up a campaign against them, ordering Parliament to debate a law that bans the wearing of full-face veils in public.

The laws have sparked debate over the limits of religious expression in a secular society, despite estimates that fewer than 2,000 of France's 5 million Muslims actually wear the veils. This seems to be the first case in which road safety was used to justify legal action.

"Safety risk"

The unnamed 31-year-old woman, a French citizen, was driving in the Breton city of Nantes when she was stopped by police, who claimed that the veil--showing only her eyes--was a "safety risk" because it restricted her vision and could have caused an accident.

The police asked her to raise her veil so they could confirm her identity, which she did. She was then fined 22 euros, or roughly $29.30.

Jean-Michel Pollono, her lawyer, told Agence France-Presse that he will appeal the conviction.  He called it a violation of human rights and women's rights.

The Brazilian F1 driver's family has signed off on the documentary

The Brazilian F1 driver's family has signed off on the documentary

Veil = safety helmet?

He added that her vision was not obscured, and noted that no French law currently forbids driving while veiled. He compared the vision provided by the woman's veil favorably to that offered by full motorcycle helmets. That point likely applies to racing helmets as well.

There are actually several styles of scarves or veils worn by Islamic and Middle Eastern women that cover their hair in various ways, sometimes covering the neck but leaving the face visible. These are the hijab, the al-amira, the shayla, the kimar, and the chador.

Covering full face: burqa or niqab

Two additional styles cover all or part of the face.  The niqab is a veil covering the whole face, but leaving the eyes clear. It is accompanied by a head scarf, and an eye veil may be added as well. [Diagrams of all styles are shown on the BBC link below.]

The burqa, which Aghan women were required to wear by the Taliban, is a single garment that covers the entire head, face, and body and falls to ground level. The wearer sees solely through a mesh veil, which may not permit her eyes to be seen from the outside.

From press photos we are not authorized to reproduce, it would seem that the French Muslim woman was wearing not a burqa but a niqab, which did not appear to obscure her peripheral vision.

More complications

The case became more complicated when French interior minister Brice Hortefeux asked immigration minister Eric Besson to look into allegations the woman's husband held radical views, had four wives--illegal under French law--and might be committing welfare fraud.

If his multiple marriages under Islamic law were not deemed legal in France, however, the women would apparently be considered his mistresses, and hence their children would be eligible for benefits under French law. No doubt there will be more to come on the case.

Still, even French right-wing leader Jean-Marie Le Pen was quoted as saying that there was no need for a ban on driving while veiled.

And in the U.S.?

It all leads us to wonder: What laws, if any, exist on the books of the 50 states of the U.S. that cover such a case?

And, is there data on the safety effects of the restricted vision provided by motorcycle helmets?

[BBC,, AP via; photo by Flickr user BabaSteve]

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