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Risk Hierarchy: Information - Rider Ed - Driver Ed - Conspicuity - Bike Defect - Ultra-Defensive Riding - Crash Avoidance - Injury Mitigation - Crash Scene
Pillion passengers are a safety issue on motorcycles. Poor briefing can endanger the passenger, driver and bike. Some motorcycle dealers will provide a pillion passenger orientation session, and some advanced training courses allow pillion passengers to participate, including Total Control. Check with your training vendor for details.
We are unable to find any specific pillion training in the US.
We provide some notes for pillion riding here, after consulting with some pillion riding couples we have ridden with.
The matching of rider and passenger is the first issue. Both should trust each other, and the pillion rider should have confidence in the driver's skills, experience and soberness, and vice versa. This implies a reasonable amount of solo experience on the bike by the driver. The driver should have been riding at least a couple of years and should have had basic and intermediate training, or its equivalent at some point. Learning to ride with a passenger up is not a good idea, although several advanced training courses allow a pillion passenger to participate.
A drunken passenger is a liability too.
I've used 'she' throughout to describe the pillion passenger, please interpret this as 'he' if appropriate.
Preparation for the 2-up ride
The pillion rider should have appropriate protective gear. She is taking the exact same risks as the rider, and needs equivalent gear. Our injury mitigation page applies. From a gear POV also read our blog posting on lost pillion passengers. There have been several rural motorcycle accidents, where the bike goes off the road, and the paramedics find the rider, but not the pillion passenger.
Any bike that has rear pegs and a dual seat should safely accommodate a passenger, but pillion-riding couples we know tend to favor super-heavy tourers like the Honda Gold Wing and HD Street Glides because of their creature comforts, and also because the extra rider weight and luggage doesn't effect the bike as much. That said, we also know couples who ride very long distances on bikes like CBR1000s, and others who like to do track days on sports bikes.
The bike might need a little adjustment to accommodate the extra weight at the back. At the minimum, jacking up the rear suspension preload is probably a good idea, and a little additional preload and compression damping on the front forks also, if the bike dives excessively at the front under braking. Tire pressures should also be adjusted according to the manufacturer's specifications.
For long trips, extra care in packing the additional baggage is a good idea, including weighing saddlebags to ensure even weight distribution.
The driver and passenger need to agree on a method of communication, unless they have helmet intercoms. Signals to communicate unhappiness with the driving, need for a comfort stop and 'everything's fine' are a minimum.
The rider might also like to plan for signals to tell the passenger of upcoming maneuvers, especially braking and acceleration.
The pillion needs to be shown how to get on and off the bike. This is best done by the passenger swinging a leg over the bike. If this is not possible, the rider leans the bike a little away from the passenger and she puts the appropriate foot on the near peg and humps herself aboard. The passenger always gets on last, gets off first, and never puts her feet down in between.
For grip, the passenger can use grab rails if available, or an agreed hold low on the driver's torso. For braking, the passenger can reach around the driver's waist and brace herself with a one hand on the tank, to prevent helmet bumping. She should use one hand only for this and continue holding on with the other hand. For acceleration, she might need to hold the driver in the lower torso. Some couples like a harness on the rider for grab purposes, especially if the bike is not well equipped with grab rails.
The passenger should also use her feet on the pegs and grip with her legs to ensure a tight connection with the bike.
The passenger needs to know about hot parts of the motorcycle, including pipes and maybe brake discs, and any other potential hazards or fragile equipment.
The passenger needs to be told about bike lean. She should either follow the bike's angle exactly, or mimic the rider's lean angle, depending on the driver's preferences. All passenger movements that are not the same as the riders need to be minimized.
When riding at speed, the passenger must lean in really close to the driver, as she can be destabilized or even knocked off the bike by a combination of air pressure between their bodies and the following vacuum caused by aerodynamic drag.
When the passenger needs to move her limbs to avoid monkey butt and get her circulation going, she should either do it on a straightaway, or have a signal to warn the driver, maybe both.
Pillion riding is an intimate process, the riders should stay close to be ready for each other's signal. Also, it's more fun that way.
Bike Handling Issues
The motorcycle will take longer to accelerate and brake than before. Additional planning and ultra-defensive lookahead is needed. The steering geometry and front wheel traction are both compromised, requiring wider and/or slower turning.
The front end is light. Inadvertent wheelies are possible when accelerating too hard. Conversely, the additional weight transfers frontwards under braking causing pitching and affecting steering and traction by using a lot of suspension travel.
The bike is not capable, for the reasons above, of the same speeds as when solo. You might have to slow down as much as 25% or 50%, unless you were already riding well within the bike's capabilities.
In conclusion, enjoy the bike, the road and each other, and ride safer.
We've ridden with riders who bring children as pillion passengers, and this is a good and sharable family activity, if the kids enjoy it. Child passengers should be old enough not to require a restraint or booster seat when riding in a cage, at the very least. They should be provided with good and well-fitted safety gear and helmet, and they should be old enough to consistently hang on and not fall asleep.
We don't endorse child passengers. Riding is a risky activity and should be done voluntarily. We doubt if small children can make an informed decision on these matters.
We note the existence in the market of harnesses used to bind small children to the backs of riders. While these devices help prevent kids falling off, especially if they nod off, being strapped to the back of the rider in the event of a crash or drop presents obvious grave dangers to the child, and also possibly the rider. Small children are also at more risk of hypothermia, hyperthermia and dehydration than adults are, and might not be able to signal distress to the parent/rider.
Although we acknowledge that parents are free to torture their children in various ways, we don't think this is a good idea. People should accept the risk of riding as a matter of freedom, and small children are unable to make free choices in these areas.
If you absolutely must ride with a small child, consider a sidecar rig, use an appropriate child restraint or booster, and maybe an intercom so the child can effectively warn the rider of any distress it is experiencing. But also bear in mind that a sidecar does not offer anything like the protection a modern car does.