Safety Tips for Riding With a Passenger

Bringing a passenger changes everything

5 Riding a Motorcycle
Not all countries regard motorcycles as recreational vehicles. In some places they are transportation for the whole family. This was shot in Bangkok, where five on a small bike is not uncommon and helmet-law enforcement is lax.Photo Courtesy of Art Friedman

Inviting someone along for a ride on your motorcycle puts their destiny in your hands for as long as the ride lasts. For first-time or infrequent passengers, the experience can be memorable and exhilarating or it can be disorienting and frightening. Many non-motorcyclists I've talked with say they rode as a passenger once or twice long ago and were so terrorized by the experience that they'll never ride again.

Though it may be tempting to be spontaneous, rushing into a ride with a passenger can lead to trouble. Most importantly, the rider should have mastery of the bike, which may not be the case with a newly purchased bike or inexperienced rider. You should also recognize that the additional weight will have negative effects on steering, low-speed handling, braking and the ride over bumps. The bike will be harder to balance and more ponderous at low speeds.

A passenger’s first ride will be affected by a number of things, including the bike you provide. It must have a passenger saddle and footpegs. Unless you are trying to make your passenger uncomfortable, the seat should be more than a tiny pad. The pegs should be placed so they can be used comfortably. (See Yamaha’s Warrior for an example of bad passenger peg placement). Even a small backrest increases the comfort level of most passengers because it dispels concerns about sliding off the back of the seat during acceleration. If the suspension is adjustable, it should be stiffened to accommodate the additional weight. Of course, the tires should be fully inflated and you should have done a thorough walk-around check of the bike.

Provide your passenger with a good DOT helmet—even if they don’t want to wear it, and even if there is no helmet law and you don’t wear one. We would hope that morality (and maybe liability) would make you get pretty tough about your passenger using head protection. The helmet should fit properly. One that’s too big can come right off in a crash and one that’s too small will be uncomfortable. Show your passenger how to get the helmet on and off and how to fasten it. Make sure the strap is tightened snugly each time the helmet is put on and that it’s positioned properly on the head. Your passenger should also have (in order of importance) solid, properly fitting gloves, a tough jacket, and boots that come up over the ankle. At the minimum, the passenger should have jeans or long pants of some other tough material. If the weather is cold, additional garb is warranted, because you want them to be safe and comfortable.

An inexperienced passenger should be provided with a full briefing on procedures and how you’ll do things. But even if your passenger is a veteran, you should settle a few issues and remind him or her that the pipes are hot.

A thorough passenger briefing should include the following:

  • How to get on and off the bike. Will he or she use the peg as a step? Point out that you'll get on first. What is the signal that you are ready for her to mount?
  • What to avoid, both while astride the bike and mounting and dismounting. This usually includes hot parts, especially the exhaust system, chain and wheels.
  • How to sit on the bike. Show where the feet go and how to hold on. Remind your passenger to keep her feet on the pegs at a stop. The passenger should normally hold on to the rider, even if you are the same sex or it's your best friend's spouse. Determine how this will be done when you both get on the bike. The passenger should hold on to your waist, not around your neck or shoulders. Grab rails give the passenger an insecure purchase and provide them with some leverage to interfere with steering. Grab straps are even worse. Gripping with the knees around the rider's hips can also provide some stability.
  • What to do in corners. This is usually the most frightening part of a ride for an uninitiated passenger. The standard advice is to just stay in line with the bike (don't fight the lean), and to look over the rider's inside shoulder.
  • What to do during braking, especially hard braking. Will the passenger just lean against you? Or will she use the grab rail to relieve some of the pressure against your back, or brace herself with her hands on the tank?
  • You should establish a basic communications protocol for things like "Slow down," "I have a problem," "I need to tell you something," "Please stop," and "Your big manly motorcycle has turned me on. I want you now!" (Jamie gets this last one a lot.)
  • That bumping helmets once in a while does not require an apology and is not a problem unless you are super anal. Bumping helmets is always the riders fault anyway. If you're smooth, it won't ever happen.
  • Discuss where you are going and what to expect, e.g. a bumpy section of road or a stint of lane-splitting.

Once you’re settled into the saddle together and ready to go, there are two maxims that will make the ride pleasurable: 1) Take it easy, and 2) Be smooth. The first ride together is not the time to impress your back-seater with the awesome power of your bike. Nor is your cornering prowess going to be appreciated by a first-timer. Many are scared when something drags, and the additional weight on the bike means that you will drag at shallower lean angles than you do solo. Pull away easily from stops, stay with the flow of traffic, slow down more than usual entering corners, and brake as gently as possible.

The ability to ride smoothly identifies an expert rider and boosts passenger confidence. If you are banging helmets with every shift or your passenger is struggling for a more secure grip, you need to work on smoothing out your drivetrain control. Let acceleration trail off before pulling the clutch, and engage the clutch more gradually than usual. Keep the bike in a higher gear than usual and make the transition from trailing throttle to acceleration gradually. The clutch can also be used to smooth things out.

You can reduce front end dive and improve passenger comfort by using the rear brake more aggressively than riding solo. Your bike probably dives more when you use the front brake than the rear. By reducing dive, you minimize the tendency of the passenger, who is usually sitting higher than you on a cruiser, slide/fall forward onto your back.

There are a number of special issues if your passenger is a child. This is an entire article in itself, but here are the top points. Put the child behind you, not in front. If you are concerned—as you should be—about the child staying on board, use one of the harnesses designed to retain them. Get a helmet that fits properly—they come in sizes as small as XXS. I wrote about this subject in October 1998. If you don’t have that issue, email me and I’ll send you the column. It’s that important.

Finally, if your passenger-toting experience is a good one and leads to a permanent relationship with lots of two-up riding, consider practicing your skills with your passenger aboard. Swerving and panic-stopping with a passenger aren’t much fun for either of you, but practicing prepares you both for the moment when something goes wrong, and allows you the chance to make it right.