A pillion passenger is a passenger that sits behind the rider on a motorbike.
The Highway Code doesn’t say much about carrying pillion passengers – just some very basic rules and no guidelines at all, so we got some input from some experienced riders to bring you the definitely guide to carrying a pillion passenger on your motorcycle. Let’s first look at what the Highway Code says:
You MUST NOT carry more than one pillion passenger who MUST sit astride the machine on a proper seat. They should face forward with both feet on the footrests. You MUST NOT carry a pillion passenger unless your motor cycle is designed to do so. Provisional licence holders MUST NOT carry a pillion passenger.
The Road Traffic Act RTA 1988 Section 23 has this:
23 Restriction of carriage of persons on motor cycles.
(1) Not more than one person in addition to the driver may be carried on a motor bicycle.
(2) No person in addition to the driver may be carried on a motor bicycle otherwise than sitting astride the motor cycle and on a proper seat securely fixed to the motor cycle behind the driver’s seat.
(3) If a person is carried on a motor cycle in contravention of this section, the driver of the motor cycle is guilty of an offence.
The Highway Code doesn’t specifically exclude people from facing backwards – it just says “they should face forward…”, and this would seem a little dangerous to us because the passenger needs to lean with the rider, which we will explain later. Let’s expand on what the Highway Code says with some practical advice. This advice is not necessarily required by law, but if you’re carrying a passenger you are responsible for that person’s life, so it’s best to ride as safely as possible.
There are no age limits for carrying a pillion, but the person must be able to reach the footrests and hold on safely.
Is your bike capable of carrying a pillion passenger?
You can see in the photo above that the motorbike has a dedicated seat and foot pegs or footrests. Those are the minimum requirements There’s most likely some kind of grab rail either side of that seat.
It’s not advisable to try to carry a pillion on a low-powered bike without adjustable suspension because the structure of the motorbike will struggle to cope with the extra forces. For example, a typical 125cc motorbike weighs around 150kg. If you weigh 75kg you represent half the weight of the bike. If you then add a pillion passenger of 60kg the two weigh almost as much as the bike. Check to see if your bike has a maximum carrying capacity.
Familiarising yourself with your motorbike
You should never carry a passenger on a bike you are unfamiliar with. You need to know the handling, acceleration and braking characteristics, plus where all the controls are before you take someone on the back. If you are hiring a motorbike and will be carrying a pillion passenger, take the motorbike for a 10-minute ride so that you can perfect your gear changes, you know where controls for the indicators are, you know what it does under brakes and how much acceleration it has, and you are aware of how it responds in a corner.
Getting on the bike
Checking whether your passenger has experience
Check whether your passenger has any experience being a pillion. If not, you need to explain the following:
- Show them which areas of the bike get hot so that they don’t burn themselves.
- Tell them that they must lean with your around corners otherwise cornering will be very difficult and that could cause you to crash.
- Explain to them what will happen when you accelerate, brake and go around corners.
- Tell them that need need to sit as close to you as possible without crowding you and that they must be holding onto either the grab rails or you at all times (but not so tight that you can’t breathe).
- Tell them that they must keep their feet on the footrests at all times including when stopped or it could unbalance you and cause you to fall.
- Explain to them the process of getting on and off the bike (explained below).
- Give them a couple of simple signals of how they can indicate to you that you need to either stop or slow down, such as two taps to the right shoulder.
- If you have a loud bike you might want to offer them earplugs to make the ride more comfortable.
- If you need to talk to your passenger your best option is a communications kit with a microphone and headset in each helmet. This is expensive. It will be difficult to hear each other once you are moving at open road speeds.
- Make sure that anything they are wearing or carrying does not obscure your lights.
- Legally the passenger is only required to wear a helmet, but it is strongly recommended that they wear a full set of motorbike protective clothing (you can read about that here).
A new pillion passenger should be checked on periodically as there is some physical exertion required to hold on – it’s not like sitting in a car. Experienced pillion passengers are usually good for 2-3 hours on a comfortable motorbike.
Trusting your pillion passenger
You should never rely on your pillion passenger to tell you if the way is clear. They might be inexperienced and could misjudge distances, or they might not have as good a view as you. Always look for yourself.
Getting on the bike
You should always get on your bike from the left-hand side so that you are the opposite side to traffic, and the same applies to the pillion. The rider should get on the bike first. If it’s an older kick start type then start the bike before the passenger gets on – you don’t need that extra weight on the bike while you are trying to kick start it. Make sure both your feet are on the ground and you have the front brake applied when the pillion passenger is getting on. Don’t put all the weight through the stand as they’re not usually designed to take it.
If the bike is one where the passenger can reach the ground either side with their feet, then they can step either side of the bike, sit on the seat then put their feet on the footrests.
If your bike is like the one pictured above where the pillion seat is higher than the rider’s seat, have them put their left foot on the left footrest, hold onto your shoulders and use the leverage to swing their right leg over the seat and onto the right footrest.
Getting off the bike
Stop the bike, apply the front brake and put both of your feet down. Let the passenger use your shoulders to help them swing their right leg over to the left side of the bike (they should always dismount to the left).
Changing the setup
To carry a pillion passenger’s extra weight you need to make some setup changes on the bike (and remember to undo all of these adjustments when you are not carrying a pillion passenger):
You’ll have more weight on the back therefore the rear suspension will be compressed. This can cause two problems: one is that it’s easier for the suspension to bottom out on bumpy roads, which will be uncomfortable and could cause the bike to bounce dangerously, or could cause damage in extreme circumstances. The second problem is that because the whole bike will be lower the rider’s footrests will be lower and that means that as you turn a corner you are more likely to catch the peg on the road and that’s likely to cause you to crash.
Therefore if your suspension has settings to make it firmer, check the manual for the required setting and apply it.
Your tyres will be under more strain because of the extra weight. There will be more tyre in contact with the road which, technically (to a point) means slightly more grip, but it will heat up the tyre more leading to a risk of delamination or blistering, and it won’t be as rigid meaning your handling will be even worse. Adding a bit more pressure will bring the tyre back into its optimum operating conditions.
With the extra weight on the back the back will be lower and this will adjust the angle of the mirrors. Readjust your mirrors so that you can see over your shoulder again.
Your headlight angle will be adjusted upwards because of the extra weight on the back and that means you are more likely to dazzle other drivers. If your headlights are not auto-levelling then you can adjust them downwards.
Changing your riding style
To start the bike moving you will need to give it more revs and feed in the clutch more gradually otherwise the extra weight of the passenger can cause the bike to stall.
Accelerating will take longer (see below), so you will need to anticipate your overtaking manouevres, and you will need to change down a gear earlier on inclines.
Gear changes should be made as smoothly as possible otherwise the passenger will be constantly headbutting the back of your helmet (see video below).
Braking will take longer (see below) because you have more weight, so brake earlier than usual.
Cornering will be more difficult because of the weight. Corners will need to be taken more slowly.
Avoid filtering as you will have less manoeuvrability and less margin for error
How will your bike be affected by the pillion passenger?
The extra weight of the passenger makes it more difficult for the bike to accelerate, corner and stop. It will become less manoeuvrable. The passenger must lean with you otherwise it will be difficult to turn the bike.
The centre of gravity of the motorbike will have shifted more towards the rear. On a powerful motorbike this means you are more likely to lift the front wheel if you accelerate hard. This can tip the passenger off the back and cause some pretty nasty injuries.
Your bike will use more fuel because there is more weight to carry and more wind resistance with the passenger on the back.
It will be more sluggish to respond to inputs – turn into corners will be less sharp and you will have less ability to make quick manoeuvres to avoid objects on the road, including things like slippery manhole covers. You will need to scan much further ahead.
Braking distances will be longer (how much longer depends on your bike and the weight of the passenger). You will be able to brake more on the rear wheel because of the extra weight over the rear.
If you are carrying anything else on your motorbike at the same time, keep it as low and central as possible.
Darren has owned several companies in the automotive, advertising and education industries. He has run driving theory educational websites since 2010.