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How to be a good pillion passenger

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There's lots of information around on how to ride a motorbike, and you usually have to pass a test before you're allowed to do it. But pillion passengers can get on the back of a bike with no training at all and can create havoc for the rider.

If you would like to know how to be a GOOD pillion passenger, read on and we'll do our best to pass on what we know.

What is a "good pillion"?

My other half is a brilliant pillion passenger. I don't feel her on the back of the bike at all (in fact I have to check now and then to make sure she hasn't fallen off! She rolls with the flow of my riding style and she almost never second-guesses my decisions. Of course she has a hard time seeing past me, which helps.

Three main things you need to know before you get on the back of a motorbike

The first thing to know is that you really have to trust the rider to get you there and back safely. If you can't trust them, get off and catch the bus. Seriously. Maybe they don't deserve your trust. Or maybe you're just a very nervous type. Either way, you will put your life and theirs at risk if you cannot trust the rider to keep you safe.

The second thing to know is that the rider should be making sure you are properly protected before you get moving. This means a decent helmet, riding jacket and riding gloves as a bare minimum. It's frightening to see young females, especially, in singlet tops and skirts on the back of high powered motorcycles ... and the rider usually has leathers and an expensive helmet. If you're not as well protected as the rider, ask yourself why not? What does the rider know that you don't know?

The third thing is to know what the rider expects from you as a pillion passenger. How should you get on and off the bike? What does he/she want you to do when the bike starts off, stops, slows down, turns left or right, etc. How can you communicate to the rider if you have a problem (e.g. your sunglasses just blew off).

Is the rider experienced enough to keep you safe?

OK, he/she got to where you are safely, but is that enough? How long have they been riding? Has he/she had experience carrying a pillion passenger before? Is this a new bike, or do they know it really well?

If you don't know the rider really well, don't be afraid to ask some friendly, but probing questions:

  • "How long have you been riding this bike?" ... at least 3-6 months would be a good answer. Anything less than three months, politely decline the offer.
  • "Have you had many passengers on the back?" ... if he/she umms and ahhs, or says no, tell them to practice with someone else and get back to you some other time.
  • "Do you drink when you go on rides?" ... the lunch stops on many group rides is a country pub, and even small amounts of alcohol rapidly decrease rider judgement and ability. Even worse, they often cause riders to believe they are more skilled than they really are.
  • "Have you ever come off your bike?" ... while a crash is not necessarily an indicator of a bad riding habits or lack of skill, some research indicates that many riders involved in crashes had also crashed at least once in the recent past. If the bike looks damaged or scraped, it may be a sign of increased risk.

Note: Touch wood, I have not had a motorcycle crash in over 25 years. But I had 4-5 crashes in my first few years as a rider, ranging from dropping the bike in loose gravel to being taken out by a car that ran a red light. These crashes taught me a lot about rider and driver behaviour that contributes to accidents and helped me to become a safer rider. So a crash history in itself may not be such a bad thing.

Will you have a good time on the ride?

OK, so you've been able to decide that you're OK to be on this bike, with this rider. What next?

The other key thing to consider is the ride itself. How long will it be? Where will it go? How often will they stop? What weather conditions do they expect? All of these will affect your enjoyment of the ride.

Some groups go out for a full day, but only ride 150-200 kms. These rides are a series of short hops with lots of drink/toilet stops and a long lunch break. Other groups go for broke with a 400-500 km all-day ride, very few breaks and a sandwich and beer lunch. Even the most experienced riders/passengers can find the latter very exhausting. If that's your first experience of pillion riding on a motorbike, it could also be your last. And at the end of a long day's riding, everyone is very tired and much more likely to make serious mistakes.

Riding all day on freeways is dead boring - for the rider as well as for the passenger. Riding on winding roads through the mountains is great for most riders (it's what bikes are made for), but it can get very taxing on the passenger. A nice mix of scenic country roads and a few hilly bits, with plenty of stops and a long lunch, makes a good day out - in my opinion.

Weather conditions can have a hugh impact on your enjoyment of a ride, as well as on safety. Temperatures above 30 degrees C can easily become 35-40 C when you are out in the sun all day on a motorbike. The air flow at 80-100 km/hr can also cause wind burn on exposed body parts when temperatures are high. Use lots of sunscreen and drink plenty of water! Rain can make a ride miserable, especially if you don't have the right wet weather gear. And strong winds can make for a very uncomfortable ride as bikes (bigger bikes especially) get pushed around a lot by the wind.

Either way, you should negotiate with the rider about what's going to happen if you want to back out after the ride starts. Will the rider be willing to turn around and take you home? Are you willing to be dropped off at a town and catch a bus, train or taxi back home? Can you organise to be picked up by a friend? Will the rider wait with you until you have organised your transport home?

Now, how to be a good pillion!

OK, so you trust the rider to keep you safe, you have the right gear to protect you and keep you comfortable on the ride, you're happy with where you're going and for how long, and you have a deal about what happens if you want to back out. What next? How do you help to keep both yourself and rider safe?

First, you need to clearly understand how the rider prefers you to get on and off the bike. I prefer my wife to get on from the left side, after I've started the bike and put it in gear, ready to go. I like her to step on the left pillion peg and put her right leg over the seat (between me and the top box). I am prepared for her weight going onto the peg and shifting as she settles in her seat, and I make allowances for it. You need to clearly understand your rider's preferences and stay with an agreed approach.

Second, you need an agreed signal that says you are settled and ready to go. My wife taps me on the shoulder when she's ready, and I don't start moving until that happens. She may have got her handbag tangled up when she was getting on, or she may have an itch she needs to scratch. Either way, I need to know it's OK to take off. And so does your rider. Agree on a signal that works for both of you.

Third, you need to know where and how to hang on. Motorbikes can (and usually do) accelerate very quickly, lean hard into corners and otherwise do things inexperienced pillion passengers can find very discomforting. Most bikes have handrails in the pillion seat area that passengers can hold onto. It's not necessary to hold onto them all the time - I've never seen or heard of a pillion passenger falling off in normal riding. But it is comforting to have something to grip when you feel unsure. Depending on the rider (and your relationship with them), you may like to hold on to the rider's waist with both hands, but please don't wrap your arms around their waist except as a sign of affection. If you see a leather strap across the seat just in front of you, ignore it as something to hang onto. It doesn't work. I don't even know why they put them there. And having your arms straight down in front of you can affect how your weight shifts on the back of the bike.

Don't hold onto the rider's shoulders or arms at any time, as this can affect the rider's control of the bike and cause a crash.

Fourth, your rider needs to know what you are going to do when he/she leans into corners. Motorbikes are steered by leaning them - it's perfectly normal for the bike to go on a lean of 25-30 degrees through a corner or bend. If you lean in the opposite direction to the rider (which some pillions do), you also cause the rider to have to lean even harder to complete the turn. If you react to the lean by trying to straighten up, you can cause a crash or over-correction.

The best thing you can do is just "be the bike" ... don't lean but go with the lean of the bike and rider. Remember about trusting the rider? This is when it get's really important. Relax, go with the flow and be as "neutral" as possible.

It's worth knowing the not all bikes behave the same way in corners, and not all riders behave the same way when cornering either. Some big bikes, like the popular "cruisers" with low exhausts and footplates, scrape loudly and can even skip a little when leaned beyond a certain point in a turn. This is perfectly normal and expected, but can scare the crap out of new riders and passengers alike. Some sports bikes can be leaned over until the bars almost touch the road (or that's what it feels like on the back) and this is pretty normal too - they have tread right up the sides of the tyres just for this reason.

Fifth, you need to know what to do when the bike accelerates and brakes. If your rider is taking off hard and braking hard, punch them in the kidneys! They really should have more thought for you as a passenger and save that stuff for when they're riding alone (as they will be if they keep doing it to you).

However, there are times when the rider will need to brake hard for the unexpected (like animals running across the road, potholes, etc). In this case, grab the handrail or put your hands low on the rider's back to support yourself. If you just slide into the rider's back you can cause a weight shift that destabilises the bike under brakes. Of course there are turds who'll brake hard with female passengers just to get the feel of two boobs in their back - we hope you don't come across many of those.

Motorbikes can and usually do accelerate fairly quickly - much faster than most cars. It's easy for a passenger to be caught unawares when this happens and slip or slide backwards on the seat. Your rider really should be thinking about your comfort and safety and moderating riding style accordingly. But you can counter acceleration forces by holding onto the handrail or the rider's waist, or by clenching your legs around the seat.

One of the really annoying things that happens when riders accelerate / brake hard, or passengers aren't prepared, is that the helmets bang together. The passenger's head comes forward and hits the rider's head. Don't apologise when this happens - it's mostly the rider's fault anyway. He/she should be able to give you a smooth ride, especially when you have little or no pillion experience.

How to communicate with the rider

Sometimes you might be lucky and get a ride with someone who has rider-to-pillion communication - headset devices that allow you to talk to each other while riding. More often than not, though, communication will be by hand signals and some shouting.

Earlier I mentioned that my wife taps me once on the shoulder when she's ready for me to take off. This is a hand signal. You and your rider should also agree on hand signals for when you want to stop at the next opportunity (e.g. two taps on the shoulder), when you need to stop right away (e.g. continuous taps on shoulder until acknowledged), and when everything is OK or you want to cancel a previous request (my wife claps both hands on my waist for a second). Sometimes you might just want the rider to slow down a bit (not uncommon among testosterone-charged groups of young riders) and you need a signal for that too (e.g. screaming "Slow down you dickhead!" might work).

Things to think about

Your comfort and safety as a passenger will be affected by the type of bike you are on. Some sports bikes have narrow, high pillion seats that put the passenger above the rider, who is leaning forward across the tank - this is usually quite uncomfortable and risks the passenger going over the top of the rider in a hard braking event or accident. On the other hand, some big "cruisers" have raised, wide and padded pillion seats that make you feel like you are more important than the rider! And perhaps you are.

If you and the rider are a couple, you should work on getting the bike and the riding conditions optimised for future rides together. There are things that can be changed on a motorbike to make passengers more comfortable, including adding a back rest (though not on all bikes) and setting up an electronic communications system. Don't be afraid to make suggestions as I'm sure your rider wants you to come with them as often as possible, and anything that makes you more secure and comfortable increases that likeliehood.

After you've been out a few times as a passenger, you might start thinking you'd like a bike of your own ... and so you should. My wife much prefers to ride her own bike, rather then be a passenger on mine. But she doesn't like long or fast rides on her own bike yet. When you start thinking about a bike of your own, there's lots of info on our site to help you make the right decision.

Have fun and stay safe, Tony.