Riding Motorcycles with Child Passengers

You can safely bring a small child...if you prepare properly. By Art Friedman.

Updated Motorcycling with kids can be done safely, if you understand the risks and take the proper precautions.

Taking a child for a motorcycle ride can be a scary proposition, but if you have children, the question will arise, probably sooner than you think. You may also be confronted with it from children in your extended family or neighbors. Unfortunately, too many people don't think it through before the child climbs on the bike.

Here's a typical disaster in the making, one that I've seen far too frequently. A motorcyclist rides down the street with a kid sitting in front of him, a helmet four sizes too large bouncing around on the child's head, its little hands trying to hold onto the gas tank or the rider's legs. The kid interferes with the rider's control of the bike, the first strike against them.

What's going to happen if the rider must stop quickly? Will he grab the child with one arm, and thereby probably lose control of the bike if he really has to panic stop, or will he keep control of the bike and watch the kid fly off the front of the bike? Neither option bodes well for the child. And when he goes flying, that oversize helmet will probably come off his head. That loss of an oversize helmets happens—to adults as well as children—much more often than most motorcyclists realize, but kids wearing helmetas that are way too large are most like to be the victims.

My kids, now 12 and 14, began agitating for rides around age three or four. I said that they couldn't ride until they could reach the footpegs, which was possible on some bikes when they were five or six. In the meantime, my wife and I discussed the issue to be sure she was completely comfortable with it. I have friends whose spouses have forbidden their kids to get on a bike. Although my wife doesn't ride herself (except as a passenger), she was confident about the kids riding with me.

I also researched the matter. I went through our many apparel catalogs looking for helmets and apparel for kids. I talked to helmet makers and looked at kid-size helmets. Most illuminating, I talked to the motorcycle-accident researchers at the Head Protection Research Laboratory, the same folks who conducted the famous Hurt Report about motorcycle-accident causes and countermeasures.

Kids' Helmets

When my older child, my son, finally was old enough to sit on some bikes with his feet on the passenger pegs, I began collecting gear. Much of the motorcycle apparel made for kids is aimed at the off-road side of the market. Most of the XXXS helmets on the market are off-road lids, not all of which are D.O.T.-certified. I wanted a full-coverage helmet with a chinbar with real expanded polystyrene (EPS, the hard foam) in the chinbar as well as the rest of the shell. Most importantly, it had to fit snugly, to be sure it would stay put during the violence of a crash. Shoei's VT-J fulfilled those requirements. Even though it was for the off-road market, it provided extensive EPS coverage. Since it had no faceshield, I had to buy some goggles.

A couple of years later, he graduated to an XXS Shoei RF200 street helmet, which included a faceshield. We are now up to a medium, and his sister has inherited his last helmet at each step. At $200 or so apiece, this out-growing helmets isn't cheap, but don't scrimp here. My research turned up far too many instances of children wearing adult-sized helmets, which simply came off during a crash. Read this jsonline.com report for an example of what can happen. And make sure the helmet is fastened snugly. Kids will typically complain at first, but don't let them fasten the chin strap loosely. I'd also have trouble giving a child anything less than a full-face helmet with a chinbar, since facial scars could be almost as devastating as a head injury and facial impacts can kill you too.

Leather Jackets for Kids?

I thought we might get away with well-made denim or other tough generic jacket, but Harley's Kid's Leather Jacket (about $160, see the Kids section of Harley's Motorclothes site) was too cool to pass up. Since my son was scrawny and the jacket started out a bit large, it actually lasted almost five years before my daughter inherited it full-time and, after watching a video of Grease what seems like a few hundred times, turned it into a fashion statement as much as riding apparel. It is a real riding jacket though, with thick leather, heavy-duty stitching and zippers, and zipped cuffs. It makes them comfortable while riding and would provide significant protection if we ever fell.

Since this article was originally printed, a new web-based company Family Motorcycling.com has sprung up to serve this motorcycle-apparel market segment, with textile and armored jackets and pants and gloves made for kids five and up. There is also a similar site in the UK, www.babybiker.com, with even more riding gear for kids.

My son now wears my wife's old jackets. In a few years, he'll be wearing mine. But I would have felt comfortable with him wearing a tough jacket made of something else, such as denim, too. If you have to choose wear to spend your money, a good D.O.T. helmet and real motorcycle gloves should top your priorities. The difference between no jacket and solid denim jacket is bigger than the difference between denim and leather in my experience.

Other Apparel

The other item that I am emphatic about using is good gloves. Hands are an essential part of our daily lives and deserve good protection. A number of companies make child-size gloves for off-road use, and I have also found a few all-leather street gloves (which I prefer) in XXS sizes. Several companies, including Olympia and Tour Master make XS-size gloves in good, solid, comfortable styles, and Family Motorcycling.com and www.babybiker.com both carry kid-specific gloves. Get some that have a good retention system -- that is, that strap on tightly. Even if the gloves are a bit large, this will keep them from coming off in the violence of a crash. Some of the off-road gloves are made well with abrasion-resistant material, but you may also find small road gloves, which tend to have better abrasion-resistant coverage.

Some heavy, long pants should be worn (again, see Family Motorcycling.com and www.babybiker.com for actual motorcycle pants made for kids) and we just used heavy weight jeans. Some well made shoes, preferably a pair that rises above the ankle, are a good idea. We used cowboy boots for a while, but I wasn't convinced that they'd stay on in a crash. The shoes should fit well, so they won't come off under pressure. Be mindful of shoelaces too. A shoelace that gets caught in a chain can cause a disaster.

Retention

Once a child has proper gear, you confront a bigger issue. How is the child going to ride? Putting a child in front of you is stupid, for the reasons already discussed. So he or she will sit behind you. That raises the issue of control. A child, especially a small one, can simply fall off. Even an older kid can fall asleep on a longer ride. Mine do, all the time. Any child can be flicked off in a brake-skid-stick situation or just a quick avoidance maneuver. Holding onto the rider can be difficult for small hands and short arms. My research uncovered an alarming number of instances when a child fell or was ejected from a motorcycle that didn't crash, often with horrifying results.

The aftermarket has a number of solutions. The simplest is one of the several types of belts for the rider with handholds for the passenger, like the Buddy Belt ($50) from G&G; or the Pillion Pal from Family Motorcycling.com. You may be able to offer a passenger similar security by attaching handhold loops to your regular pants or jacket belt. However, kids have trouble remembering to hold on all the time, so I rarely used this solution until they were 10 or older.

My preferred system for carrying a young kids is the Child's Riding Belt (formerly the CRV Belt) ($129) from Child's Riding Belt Company, and imported by several retailers for the U.S. market. The CRV is a harness that goes around the child's waist, over the shoulders and between the legs so she can't wriggle or pull out. The quick-release buckles are all on the back so she can't release them, but getting in (before the helmet is donned) is quick. The child's harness fastens to a foam-rubber pad with handlebar-type grips. A large belt, attached to the front of the pad, goes around the rider's waist to secure the child to you. The child cannot fall off unless you do. My kids routinely fall asleep back there, and we have even ridden off-road, jumping and bouncing around, with no fear of them getting thrown off. Of course, if you did crash, the child would be attached to you, which might cause additional injury if they ended up between you and whatever you bounced against. On the other hand, you can also jump up to leap out of harm's way, and the child, since it is attached, will come with you, without the need for an explanation.

Though my daughter, who is younger and braver, sometimes suggested riding without the CRV Belt, both kids felt secure in it, and it has proven comfortable on a wide variety of bikes. On short rides, such as the few blocks to school, we used just a belt with handholds after about age 9. But until they were in their teens, they requested the CRV for anything more than a few minutes.

I tried talking to my kids early on about the potential dangers of riding, but they didn't get much of it. I do it every day, so how could it be that bad? To them it's pure fun, even riding in the rain (though they don't have rainsuits). With repetition, they did learn what they needed to be conscious of—hot exhaust pipes, not mounting from the right, keeping their feet out of the wheel, faceshield over their eyes, keeping their feet on the pegs. We have a simple system of communications, and we may actually get one of the communicator systems.

Trying It Out

Of course, they had a gentle introduction and haven't had any bad experiences. They both had their first rides on a deserted, dead-end rural road with little traffic. Next it was rides to school, where every kid on the yard came out to watch their arrivals and departures. One mother, watching us arrive on a big Vulcan, even commented, "My kids want you to be their dad." Progressively longer rides led to weekend outings with my son, which he loved. We made a motorcycle camping trip to a spot back in the mountains where a car has a hard time reaching. My daughter has begun agitating for her and I to ride to Alaska.

A few people have told me that they think motorcycling is too dangerous an activity to involve kids. My response is simply that since I believe, after taking a long sober look at the risks and preparing myself for them, that it's safe enough for their parent to do, it's safe enough for kids as well, assuming I consider their needs. And I'll sometimes add that if people would stop talking on their cell phones in traffic and engage their brains, it would be safer for everyone.

Resources

Child's Riding Belt Company
PO Box 22
Edmonton, Alberta Canda T5E 5S7
(780)973-3253
www.childridingbelt.com

www.babybiker.com
11 Union Road
Leamington Spa
Warwickshire
CV32 5NB
United Kingdom

G&G; Corp. 6751 NW 34th
St. Margate, FL 33063
(954)752-7446
www.buddybelt.com

If you have questions of comments about this article, email the author at Art.Friedman@primedia.com_ or at _ ArtoftheMotorcycle@hotmail.com.

For more information on safe-riding equipment, strategies, techniques and skills, see the Street Survival section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.

_This photo was snapped in Bangkok, Thailand, where carrying your kids on a motorcycle is more likely done out of necessity than for recreation. However, if the father had to stop suddenly or if he rear-ended a car, the two children riding in front of him would likely be ejected amd the one between himself and his wife might be squashed. Since none of the children have any protection, their injuries could be extensive. _(Photo by Art Friedman)