Sep 3, 2013

Co-Rider Seminar - Motorcycling Co-Riders

[A few years back, Pat Hahn asked me to write the bit for passengers on Minnesota's Department of Public Safety motorcycle page.  I took him seriously and did it.  He edited the crap out of my article and, mostly, published it.]

Before I get into nuts and bolts of being a motorcycle passenger/co-rider, it's important to discuss the philosophy you should have before mounting up on that rear bike seat. Being a passenger on a motorcycle requires considerably more skill and concentration than riding in a car. There is no safety belt, shoulder harness, air bag, or ton of steel and glass between you and harm's way. The only thing insulating you from the pavement and the other obstacles on the road (including cars) is the skill of rider and whatever protective gear you're wearing.

However, passive safety systems (helmet, gloves, jacket or riding suit, boots, etc.) aren't the most important safety consideration you need to think about.  Riding a motorcycle at almost any speed, in normal traffic, is as close to depending on life-support equipment as you are likely to experience outside of sky and scuba diving, bungie-jumping, or rock climbing.  None of those activities relegate the activity's control and safety to another person.  Being a passenger on a motorcycle is a high-risk, semi-passive activity.  The first thing you need to do, to be a motorcycle co-rider/passenger, is to choose your rider carefully. 

After I had volunteered to write this section of the instruction guide, I realized that I have practically no recent experience riding motorcycles as a passenger, or with a passenger.  My wife, who used to race her own off-road motorcycles, only occasionally rides with me and, mostly, for short distances.  In fact, I've carried very few passengers on my motorcycles in the past decade.  I've only been a passenger twice in that period. 

There is a reason for that inexperience.  Being a passenger on a motorcycle is an exercise in extreme trust and it puts the passenger in a position of nearly complete loss of control.  Most competent motorcyclists are control freaks.  I am a control freak and I'm proud of it.  There are only two people on this planet who I trust to be in control of a motorcycle when I'm a passenger; my brother and my best friend.  Otherwise, I'll walk back.  Thanks for asking.

The point in all this is that I practice what I'm preaching.  Personally, I think it's only reasonable to be that critical of who you ride with.  Otherwise, you're gambling with your life and skin and that's simply stupid.

Almost 30 years ago, a friend with whom I regularly raced dirt bikes, bought a brand new Kawasaki 900 Z1.  Since his wife wasn't stupid enough to take a test drive with him, he asked me if I'd be interested.  He gave me a hard time over my insisting that I go home for my helmet and riding jacket, but he put up with it.  We headed out of town, toward a local lake, and he cracked the throttle wide open.  On my first ride as a passenger on a street bike, I witnessed a speedometer zipping past 120 mph before he slowed down to return home. 

In the middle of his U-turn, I wrapped my arm around his throat and said, "Anything over 50 and you're a dead man."  I suppose I ruined his maiden voyage, but he got over it.  I didn't.  The only way I'll be a passenger is if I absolutely trust the rider.  Otherwise, I walk or take the bus. 

It's worth being picky about who you accept as a passenger, too.  Being in control of a two-up bike isn't a terrific improvement over being the passenger.  A terrified or foolish passenger can really ruin your day.  Years ago, an acquaintance took a friend for a ride on his brand new motorcycle.  After she suddenly freaked out and wrapped her arms around his face at 70 mph in the midst of Santa Monica Freeway traffic, they ended up spending several days in a hospital and a lot more time in rehabilitation. 

I'd estimate that a typical passenger contributes somewhere between 10% and 25% of the combined vehicle-occupant over-center-of-gravity weight and balance.  In a critical situation, that contribution, if misused, can be the difference between a safe ride and mortality.  So, if you still want to be a passenger, or ride with one, what follows is my best advice on how to survive that adventure and to minimize the risk.

I.        Motorcycles and Passengers

The Passenger's Job

A motorcycle passenger can't contribute much to the stability of the motorcycle, since any bike is easier to ride without a passenger.  No matter how skilled the passenger, this is true.  Motorcycles are, by their basic principles, a single-person vehicle.  Even the giant road bikes are much safer, more stable, and more comfortable without a passenger.

But a passenger can certainly destabilize a motorcycle, even without trying.  For example, a 400-pound motorcycle with a 150-pound rider and a 110-pound passenger creates a vehicle where the passenger represents almost 20% of the vehicle's total weight. Even at the opposite extreme, an 800-pound bike with a 220-pound rider and a 120-pound passenger, the passenger still represents more than 10% of the total vehicle weight. When the bike is at highway speeds, weight shifts of a few pounds will cause the vehicle to turn.  At low speeds, the same weight shift will cause the bike to topple.

So, the passenger's primary job is to destabilize the vehicle as little as possible.  The best way to do that is to mirror the actions of the rider as smoothly as possible.  The easiest way to do what the rider does is to be attached to the rider.  Women riding with men seem to automatically know this and wrap their arms around the rider's waist. 

Men riding with men seem to forget everything they know about motorcycles and attempt to balance themselves on the seat, using the back of the seat for a grip.  This is a terrific starting position, for a reverse 1 3/4 gainer after an abrupt acceleration, but it's a worthless riding position.  If you have that Minnesota allergy to touching other guys, consider gripping the rider's shoulders.  This position gets you in contact with the rider, so you can communicate through hand signals.  It is also about as stable as you would be riding a bike with pull-back handlebars.  It's a good compromise.  If this is too much male-to-male contact for you, consider calling a cab or taking the bus.

The secondary job of a rider is to act as a second set of eyes and ears, connected to a second brain.  If two minds are better than one, anywhere, it's true on a motorcycle.  Their are obstacles and hazards coming toward you from every direction on a motorcycle.  A good rider can cover about 180 degrees of hazard observation.  A good rider with a good passenger can almost double that. 

Motorcycles are poor places for daydreaming, even as a passenger.  You should be watching, listening, and smelling for hazards and changes in the riding environment any time the vehicle is in motion. If you keep in mind that you're traveling on a life-support mechanism that needs constant attention, you may save your own life.

Before you go into motion, you should have a basic communication system in place.  Don't count on being able to talk over the wind noise, unless you have a headset communication system.  Headsets fail and you may need to quickly get the rider's attention in an emergency, so, you still need a basic manual system.  If an intercom is not used, the co-rider and rider need to establish communication signals.  Suggested signals could be:

·       Right turn - squeeze or tap the right arm

·       Left turn - squeeze or tap the left arm

·       Stop or slow down-squeeze or tap with both arms

With all of these precautions in place, we go riding.

Balancing the Motorcycle

Since the first line of defense between road rash and your finely tuned, free-of-pain body is staying upright, the first thing we're going to discuss is that: balancing the motorcycle.  Staying shiny side up (and rubber-side down) and moving in the direction you planned on going is the topic of the third section. 

II.      Mounting and Dismounting the Motorcycle

A.      Mounting

·       Prior to mounting the motorcycle, the co-rider should be properly attired in protective gear. (helmet, gloves, jacket or long sleeved shirt, eye protection, pants, over-the-ankle footgear)

·       When the rider is mounting the motorcycle, the co-rider should stand away from traffic and 5-6 feet away from the motorcycle in case it falls.

·       After the rider has started the motorcycle, made all the necessary adjustments, and has the motorcycle pointed toward a clear path, the co-rider will be instructed to mount the motorcycle.

·       The co-rider should mount the motorcycle from the left side.  This is a hold-over from our humans-on-horseback past, but it still applies.  The co-rider should place the left  hand on the shoulder of the rider, step on the footpeg and then either swing the leg over the seat.

·       Co-rider’s who have difficulty mounting the motorcycle may need assistance from another person.   You may be able to use an object to step on, to make it easier to get a leg over the saddle.

·       The co-rider should inform the rider when he is ready to go.

B.       Dismounting

·          The rider will communicate when he is prepared for the co-rider to dismount.

·          The co-rider must make sure that any wires (Communication, electric vests etc.) will not interfere with the dismounting procedure.

·          The co-rider should place her hand on the rider’s shoulder and then carefully swing her leg over the seat, and dismount on the left side of the motorcycle.  Ideally, the dismount will be on the non-traffic side of the motorcycle.

·          After dismounting, the co-rider should stand 5-6 feet away from the motorcycle and stay clear of traffic while the rider dismounts.

Optional Dismount

·          First, the rider extends the side stand and dismounts. 

·          Then, the rider grasps the handlegrip with the left hand to steady the motorcycle and uses the right hand to assist the co-rider in dismounting.

III. Maneuvering the Motorcycle

A. Riding a Straight Line with a Passenger

You'd think that starting off a program like this, with one of the most difficult tasks a rider and co-rider have to do, would be poor planning.  Unfortunately, to get to the easy stuff, you have to go through one of the hardest.

Low Speed, Straight Line Riding

To get out of the parking lot and into the flow of traffic, you first have to get the bike rolling.  Usually, that means moving at low speeds in a straight line. 

Motorcycles are unstable at low speeds. The two primary inertial forces contribute to stabilizing the bike (the forward-moving inertia of the overall vehicle and the gyroscopic forces produced by the rotation of the wheels) are reduced with the vehicle's speed.

·       Inertia - this is the tendency for object at rest to remain at rest and an object in motion to stay in motion.  Newton's First Law of Motion comes into play when the motorcycle loses speed and seems to require more changes in steering to keep on a straight path. 

·       Gyroscopic force - this inertial force is generated by the rotation of the wheels and it tends to hold the vehicle's axles stationary.  This characteristic helps the rider keep the vehicle held vertical and moving straight ahead.

With only two wheels on the ground, it's not hard for other forces to change the stability of a slow moving motorcycle.  Shifts in weight by the rider or co-rider, uneven road surfaces, steering inputs by the rider and wind create cornering forces, which cause the motorcycle to lean.  When the motorcycle or rider leans, the vehicle's center of gravity shifts.  The center of gravity is the point where the weight of the motorcycle and riders is balanced.  The force of gravity and the weight of the motorcycle and riders acting through the center of gravity pull the bike toward the ground. As soon as the bike begins to lean, the rider must make adjustments in the steering and/or counterweight to balance the motorcycle.  This often results in low speed wobble.

A motorcycle with a high center of gravity is more difficult to balance because the leaning force created by the vehicle's gross weight (the motorcycle, the fuel, and the co-rider) is greater.  A rider and passenger are often the most obvious source of a motorcycle's high center of gravity.  Yet another reason to exercise and diet. 

The role of the co-rider in low speed, straight line riding

·       At low speeds the co-rider should remain stationary and as vertical as possible.  Sudden moves by the co-rider can cause extreme instability.

·       The co-rider should keep their feet on the pegs, knees against the seat and hands on the rider's waist.  An alternative grip is on the rider's shoulders. 

2.         High Speed Straight Line Riding

This is the easiest riding situation for both the rider and co-rider.  The vehicle is reasonably stable because physics is on our side.  We're moving and the wheels are gyroscope-ing, so the bike tends to stay upright and moving straight ahead. 

Balancing at higher speeds is easier for the rider. 

In fact, the bike practically balances itself at speed.  The force of inertia and the gyroscopic force produced by the rotation of the wheels increases with speed and aid in stabilizing the motorcycle.  The motorcycle is more resistant to change and it takes more effort to change the balance and direction of the motorcycle.

The role of the co-rider in straight line riding

·       Minor shifts in weight will not seriously affect the handling of the motorcycle.  However, quick movements can be distracting and, even, dangerous.  Changing the center of gravity will cause the bike to turn, sometimes, quickly.

·       Keep your hands, arms, and legs close to the motorcycle.  Movement that creates wind drag or lateral shifts in weight can alter the path of travel and make controlling the motorcycle more difficult. 

·       If you need to stretch or alter your position, inform the rider to help him/her prepare and be ready to compensate. 

B.       Cornering with a Passenger

1.         Low Speed Turns

This is often the hardest riding situation for both the rider and co-rider.  The vehicle is not stable because we're intentionally unbalancing the bike for the turn and physics, inertia, is not on our side.  We're barely moving, so we have almost no gyroscopic stability and an object beginning to lean tends to keep increasing that lean.  It takes concentration and skill to manage a low speed turn with a passenger.

Motorcycles with a higher center of gravity will require more effort to keep the motorcycle balanced and maintain control.  A bike with the additional load of a passenger and luggage may have a considerably higher center of gravity than the vehicle's designers considered.  This is often a critical maneuver.

Depending on the sharpness of the turn, the rider may need to counterbalance the weight of the motorcycle in order to increase the lean angle of the motorcycle.  If you're in close contact with the rider, you will feel this shift in position.  Be as smooth as possible with any movements you make and do try to counteract the rider's weight changes.  If you're not an experienced rider, it is best to remain absolutely stationary during this maneuver.

The role of the co-rider in low speed turns

·       Keep your hands, arms, and legs close to the motorcycle.

·       Do not shift your weight or make any sudden movements.

·       Lean with the rider.

2.         High Speed Turns

The stability of the motorcycle increases when the speed increases.  Highway speed turns are not only much easier than low speed maneuvering, but they can be a lot of fun.  This is where you get to feel the power of the earth's gravity, and centrifugal force, acting against the motion of the vehicle.  A well-executed corner is the most entertaining thing you can do on a motorcycle. 

A motorcycle makes a high speed turn when the rider counter-steers (presses against the opposite side of the handlebar from the direction of the turn)  and the rider and co-rider lean with the motorcycle.  The combination of the steering and weight-shift causes the bike to alter its direction. The motorcycle is balanced when the force exerted by the weight which causes the motorcycle to lean to the inside of the turn is offset by centrifugal force or the force that makes the motorcycle want to lean to the outside of the turn.  A motorcycle turns, when one, or both, of those forces is unbalanced. Simple physics.

The role of the co-rider in high speed turns

·       Look over the inside shoulder of the rider and lean with the motorcycle.

·       Do not lean in the opposite direction. This is important because:

·       Leaning to the outside will make it more difficult for the rider to achieve and maintain the desired lean angle.

·       Leaning to the outside will cause the motorcycle's lean-angle to increase.  Parts of the motorcycle could scrap the ground or the tires' traction limits could be exceeded, resulting in a potential loss of control.

·       Don’t Panic!  The motorcycle must lean to turn.  It may feel unnatural and somewhat scary, but you'll get used to it. 

C.       Braking with a Passenger

The co-rider ‘s weight adds to the energy of motion that is generated when the motorcycle is moving.  This means that the braking force needed to stop the motorcycle will be noticeably greater than what is required for a solo rider.  Depending on your bike, your weight, your passenger's weight, and the weather, you may be very surprised (shocked, even) at the change in your motorcycle's braking capacity.

It's a good idea to do some test braking, immediately after taking on a passenger, to find out how much greater braking force you will need in an emergency.  The result of that testing will help you determine how much sooner you need to apply your brakes for comfortable stops and how much extra strength you'll need to apply for emergency maneuvers. 

When a motorcycle’s brakes are applied, the weight of the motorcycle shifts to the front.  The co-rider’s seating position places more weight on the rear wheel and thereby increases the amount of traction that will be available for braking on the rear wheel.  However, the net effect is that it still requires more distance to bring the motorcycle to a stop if a co-rider is on board.

The role of the co-rider in straight line braking

·       The co-rider must be careful to sit upright while braking.  If the co-rider leans to one side, the motorcycle will also lean and the amount of traction available for braking will be reduced.

·       The co-rider must also be in control of the shifting of his/her body weight to the front when the brakes are applied.

·       Slamming into the back of the rider could affect the rider’s ability to maintain grip on the handlebars and apply pressure to the front brake lever.

·       Sudden weight shifts toward the front will also lighten the weight on the rear wheel and could contribute to a rear wheel skid.  To prevent this from occurring, the co-rider should be alert for conditions that may arise requiring hard braking.

·       The co-rider should place his/her hands on the waist of the rider to help brace him/herself from slamming into the rider.

·       It is also helpful to lean rearward from the shoulders.  This will help prevent head butting.

·       A final technique is to use the footpegs as a brace and exert pressure on them while squeezing your knees against the seat.  Keep your feet on the footpegs.  Do everything you can to keep from transferring your weight to the rider's arms.

The role of the co-rider when braking in a curve (normal stop)

·       Mirror the action of the rider.  Lean with the motorcycle through the curve.

·       Use the same techniques for posture mentioned in straight line braking.

·       As the motorcycle slows and is almost at the stopping point, the rider will straighten the motorcycle.  The co-rider should sit upright and not lean into the turn at this point.  Again, mirror the position of the rider.

The role of the co-rider when braking in a curve in an emergency

·       There may come a time when the rider is going through a turn and will need to come to a rapid stop.  In this type of situation the rider will attempt to straighten the motorcycle quickly and then apply the brakes.

·       The co-rider should mirror the posture of the rider and stay in an upright position when the motorcycle is straightened.

·       Use the same techniques cited for braking in a straight line.

D.      Swerving

Swerving is accomplished by steering the motorcycle quickly.  The timing of this maneuver will depend on when the obstacle is identified by the rider.  This is one of the many reasons it's important for the passenger to pay attention to road conditions.  If the passenger resists the lean of the bike, the maneuver will be less effective and may cause an accident.

Role of the Co-rider

·       To accomplish this both the rider and co-rider will need to remain seated in vertical position while the swerving maneuver is occurring.

·       Do not attempt to lean in any direction, simply allow the motorcycle to move freely underneath you.

E.       Surmounting (riding over) an Obstacle

Surmounting an obstacle occurs when the rider is unable to stop or can not swerve to avoid it.  This happens more often than you'd like to believe.  On warm spring days, the road may heave, dramatically, creating one of nature's speed bumps in the highway.  Something may fall from a vehicle, just ahead on the road, and there won't be time to avoid it.  I, once, had the thrill of riding over a spare tire that came loose from its mounting at highway speeds.  Motorcycling is a never-ending source of exciting experiences.

Ideally, the rider should forewarn the co-rider prior to surmounting an obstacle to prevent being catapulted from the seat.  More often, the rider is doing everything he can just to stay on the bike, himself, and there was practically no time for a warning or evasive maneuver. 

Role of the Co-rider

·       Rise, slightly, off of the seat, placing your weight on the footpegs. Bend your knees and squeeze them against the seat This assists the motorcycle's suspension, a little, and prepares you for the shock.

·       Hold on firmly to the rider’s waist.  If there was any time to exactly mirror the rider's position, this is it. 

·       Try not to transfer your weight to the rider. 

IV. Handling the Motorcycle in an Emergency

A.      Location/Operation of Motorcycle Controls

In order to handle a motorcycle in an emergency, the co-rider should have knowledge of the location and operation of the motorcycle’s controls. At a minimum the co-rider should know the location and operation of the following basic controls:

·       engine cut-off switch ("kill" switch),

·       ignition switch,

·       throttle,

·       front and rear brake,

·       clutch lever,

·       gear shift lever, and

·       starter button

It is also helpful to know the location of the horn, the hazard lights, and how to operate the CB if so equipped.  The best way for a co-rider to obtain this knowledge is through the Basic Riding and Street Skills Course.

B.       Incapacitated/Unconscious Rider

In the event the rider becomes unconscious or incapacitated while riding, the co-rider, will need to take control of the motorcycle.  The co-rider should:

·       Grasp the handlegrips to gain control of the motorcycle’s direction.

·       Turn the engine off using the engine cut-off switch.

·       Apply the brakes to slow.

·       Steer toward a soft area.

·       Squeeze the clutch lever.

·       Maintain balance and control of the motorcycle as it stops.

If the co-rider is not be able to balance the weight of the motorcycle after it slows, do the following:

·       Raise his legs to prevent them from becoming trapped underneath the motorcycle.  Motorcycles with engine guards or saddlebags may help to keep the rider and co-rider’s legs from becoming trapped under the motorcycle.

·       If possible, the co-rider may want to dismount the motorcycle in the opposite direction of its fall, just prior to its crash.

V.       Raising a fallen motorcycle 

A. Safety Precautions

·       Get Help!  Even a light weight sport bike can be impossible for two people to lift, when it's stuck in an awkward position or loaded with luggage.

·       Avoid touching hot motorcycle parts.  Exhaust temperatures are hot enough to melt lead and more than hot enough to burn skin.

·       Watch for gasoline that may have spilled, creating a fire hazard or a slippery surface. 

·       Battery acid may leak from the battery's vent holes.  Flush and wash any skin or material that has contacted the acid.

·       Brake fluid will damage paint and plastic.  Wash affected areas with soap and water.

B. Raising a Dropped Motorcycle Equipped with Engine Protection Bars

·       If it is on a slope, pivot the bike to point uphill.  Shift into first gear.  If the bike is on its right side, extend the sidestand.

·       Position yourself where you can firmly grasp the handlebars and rock the bike toward you, on the engine protection bars.

·       Use the rocking motion's momentum to roll the motorcycle upright, while bending your knees and using leg power to push the bike upright.

C. Motorcycle without Engine Protection Bars

·       Pivot the bike to point uphill if it is on a slope.  Shift to first gear.  It the bike is on its right side, extend the sidestand.

·       Grasp the low handlebar (the handlegrip nearest the ground) and turn the front wheel toward you.

·       Grasp something solid along the frame with your other hand.

·       Work your knees up under the saddle to help lever the bike upright.

E: Optional Lifting Techniques

·       If bike is on its left side, turn the handlebars to the left.

·       Grasp the right hand grip, push forward and use your legs to lift the bike.  The handlebars will act as a lever to assist in lifting the bike.

·       If another person is available, it may be helpful to have that person stand on the right side footpeg to help counterweight the bike.

V. Practical Assistance the Co-Rider Can Provide

A.      Navigation

It's almost impossible to control a motorcycle and read a map, at the same time.  Co-rider can be a great help reading maps and locating critical information. A co-rider who can read a map and provide directions is a rare and wonderful thing.

Co-rider can also use traditional hand signals to communicate to other motorists:

·       Left (left arm pointing left) and Right (left arm bent and pointing up) turn signals

·       Stop signal (left arm pointing down)

B. Identifying Hazards in the road

Co-rider can act as a second set of eyes to identify hazards.  The location of the hazard i.e. right side, left side, center; should be calmly communicated to the rider.

C.       Packing and Loading Gear for Two

·       Place critical gear where it can be readily accessed.

·       Evenly distribute the stored weight in the saddlebags and trunk. Store heavy items as low as possible and toward the center of the motorcycle.

·       Properly secure the gear.  If you don't, you won't even know when it's gone till you stop for lunch.  The other possibility is that you'll find out something has come loose when it tangles itself in a wheel and brings your vacation trip to a quick stop. 

D.      Time Savers and Common Courtesy

A truly considerate co-rider pays for gas stop expenses.  My wife hasn't accepted this rule, but I keep trying.  A co-rider can also obtain receipts and perform whatever record keeping that needs doing.  The co-rider should have proper change available to pay for tollbooth fees.  A co-rider can reserve restaurant seats while the rider parks motorcycle or refuels.

The typical co-rider will insist the rider stops to ask for directions when lost!!  Thanks Mom.

E.       Keep the Rider Alert and Yourself Alive

There are some things a co-rider can do to make a long trip a lot more pleasant:

·       Guard against highway hypnosis that results after extended hours of riding on boring roads (most freeways and all of Iowa). 

·       When you communicate, try not to distract but do it to keep rider mentally alert. 

·       Occasional shoulder and back massages will reduce the rider's stress and increase alertness.  I'm not making this up.

·       If you've shopped and packed well, you can keep the rider supplied with energy producing snacks.  It's pretty hard to get anything more complex than candy through a helmet visor, so don't be surprised if the rider refuses a meatball sandwich. 

Ride safe and have fun.

Disclaimer Statement

The information contained in this presentation is offered for the benefit of those who have an interest in riding motorcycles.  This information has been compiled from publications, interviews and observations of individuals and organizations familiar with the use of motorcycles, accessories and training. Although the Minnesota Motorcycle Safety Program will continue to research, field test and publish responsible viewpoints on the subject, it disclaims any liability for the views expressed herein.


  1. As a pillion riding and solo rider I believe this is all good information.

    I can add that after riding pillion for years then riding my own ride for a few years it is way harder to get back on the back of hubby's bike even though he is a trained safety instructor.

    Suddenly I realized when riding pillion I have no handlebars to hold onto, no heated grips and no control.........

  2. That is a fact. I am willing to be passenger for no more than a half-dozen people on the planet.


Disagree? Bring it on. Have more to add? Feel free to set me straight. Unfortunately, Blogger doesn't do a great job of figuring out which Anonymous commenters are actually real people, not Russians or Chinese bots. I'm pretty ruthless about spam-labeling anonymous posts. If you have something worth saying, you shouldn't be afraid of using your ID.