Learning how to drive a scooter isn’t actually that complicated but it does take some practice. It’s mostly a balance thing but there are a number of other important elements to be aware of.
I learnt how to drive a scooter for my travels in Asia. Unfortunately I didn’t learn how to ride one at home first, I learnt on the road.
It would have been much easier, and safer, for me to learn at home first.
Scooters are dangerous and not something to be messed about with, especially in some of the crazy traffic in Asia, so make sure you invest the time in ensuring you’re comfortable driving one before you hit the open roads.
Here I’ll take you through essential tips for getting to grips with driving a scooter in general and some “I’m driving in batshit crazy traffic”, i.e. Asia, specific ones too.
I started off too terrified to learn for months, looking on in gaping awe as I saw other people bombing around on them like it was nothing, to now really enjoying driving a scooter, even in crazy traffic in Asia, and being fully qualified to drive motorbikes up to 1000cc.
If you’re the impatient sort feel free to jump ahead to any of the sections you think will be most relevant to you:
- The importance of helmets
- It’s all about balance
- Speed is your friend
- Get to know your accelerator
- Accidental acceleration when breaking
- The “pitfalls” of gravel, sand and potholes
- Driving people on the back of your scooter
- Dealing with batshit crazy traffic
- Beeping your horn
- Learning the traffic laws – formal and non-formal
7 Essential Tips for How to Drive a Scooter
1. Wear a helmet
Seriously. It doesn’t matter where you’re driving a scooter or how deserted the area is you never know what might happen. So before we even get onto how to ride the thing, put a helmet on.
The closest I’ve ever been to a bad crash on my scooter wasn’t because of other bikes or cars it was because of a cow that sauntered out into the road in the dark. The street could be deserted and you still might crash.
My second incident on a bike took place 2 minutes round the corner from where I was staying. Someone hit me and I went flying.
Put a helmet on.
I’m pointing this out because actually, as embarrassing as this is to admit, when I first started riding on the back of friends scooters it didn’t even occur to me to wear a helmet. I didn’t register how dangerous they are.
The only time I’d put one on was if we were afraid the police would be around and stop us for it.
The reason to wear a helmet is not because of any laws saying you should. It’s because if you come off a scooter, even at not that fast a speed, the risk of injuring yourself is extremely high. And if you’re not wearing a helmet the risk of fatally injuring yourself, rather than just being a bit banged up for a while, goes up astronomically.
I hear of far too many serious injuries that could have been prevented by people wearing helmets where I am in Asia at the moment.
2. It’s all about balance
Learning to drive a scooter is just like learning to ride a bike. I mean you are literally learning how to ride a bike, just a different type of bike!
Remember when you were a kid and were learning to ride a bike? The hardest thing was the balance, that’s why you had those stabiliser wheels. Well fortunately when learning to drive a scooter you can use your legs as stabiliser wheels.
To start a standard automatic scooter you need to hold down the ignition switch (a small buttin just by the right handle bar) and the right break at the same time. That will start the engine. Keep both hands on the breaks as you do, just in case.
Then, with your feet planted on the floor, release the breaks and turn the accelerator (right handle bar) gently until the bike starts to move forward.
Allow your feet to hover over the ground incase you get a bit wobbly and need to put them down.
Then keep doing this driving back and forward along an empty road or carpark as you get more used to balancing and needing to put your feet down less.
3. Speed is your friend
The bike is wobbliest the slower you go.
It will naturally feel like you should go as slow as possible when starting but trying to at least build up a bit of momentum so you can experience what it feels like when the bike stabilises as it coasts along will get you used to the feeling of balance.
That does mean though that you really should be as careful as possible when starting in tightly packed traffic as your initial start isn’t likely to be very straight when you’re just beginning.
4. Get to know the accelerator
After balance, getting used to the accelerator , and how much you have to turn the handle to go at different speeds is the second most important thing. Try to keep your movements in regard to it as small and gentle as possible.
It doesn’t take that big a turn of the accelerator to accidentally take your bike from pootling along to a full throttle lurch forward. Which takes me to…
5. Watch out for the accidental acceleration when breaking
The first time you find yourself going faster than intended on a scooter you’ll slam down the breaks as hard as possible.
But what you also might do, as I did and have watched countless others do, is accidentally accelerate at the same time.
Be as carefully as you possibly can, that when you break your right hand doesn’t also twist backwards accelerating the bike. Doing this whilst breaking is what causes people to go flying over the handlebars.
Also, always try to use both breaks together. Just slam on one and you risk locking either the back or front tire and either skidding out or
6. The “pitfalls” of sand, loose gravel & potholes
Sand and loose gravel make the tires on scooters skid out something crazy. Even if you know there is sand or gravel there and think you’ve got it, you probably don’t.
Go slow, really slow, and dangle your feet off the sides of the bike so you can steady yourself if needed.
Potholes are also the devil when driving a scooter.
If you’re in a car and drive over a pothole it’s no big deal. The car and its wheels are big enough to counteract the bump and carry on without any real issues. This is not the case on a scooter.
Go over a pothole hard and fast and the impact will judder all the way up through your bike and your bones.
If you haven’t braced your arms for the impact this will likely result in your handlebars turning and you potentially toppling off the bike.
Even worse than this is that scooter tyres are much more delicate than car tyres and a single pothole can cause you to instantly get a flat tire. Flat tires are dangerous on bikes as they cause the bike to wobble around. You lose a huge amount of control.
If you get a flat tyre drive extremely slowly and get to a repair shop as soon as possible.
***yes I know that was a bad pun at the start of this point but I just couldn’t resist, sorry ? ***
7. Driving people on the back of your scooter
As I mentioned earlier there is balance involved in driving a scooter since it doesn’t have the stability of two wheels either side. As a result driving someone on the back of your scooter is very different to just driving the scooter with yourself on it. Their additional weight can make it harder to turn corners and throw the balance of your scooter off depending on how they sit.
Make sure you are completely comfortable driving a scooter on your own before you offer to take anyone else on it.
I have a full motorbike licence, am legally allowed to drive people on the back of my scooter, have been driving for almost 4 years now and am a very competent at driving yet I still avoid taking people on the back of mine where possible.
How to Drive a Scooter in Asia
1. Dealing with batshit crazy traffic
Whilst the traffic can look scary (AF) in a lot of places it’s actually not as bad as you would think. The first time I experienced traffic like this was arriving in Hanoi at night, my first time in Asia and I was honestly scared to even cross the road.
In places where there is a high prevalence of scooters and a lot of traffic the way people drive is very different to back home though which is why it really isn’t as bad as it looks.
Everyone is much more aware of what everyone else on the road is doing. So much so you’ll find once you start driving that you get the feeling that other drivers are aware of what you’re going to do before you even do it.
And people are more considerate in their driving. Instead of fighting to get through places and never giving way, where there are hordes of scooter drivers people give way a lot more.
Driving scooter is dangerous and so a higher level of consideration is required and less dickhead drivers are present as a result.
2. Beeping your horn
If you are driving a scooter in Asia it’s important to use your horn.
When you first arrive in Asia it’s overwhelming how many horn beeps you hear even just whilst walking down the street. It makes it sound like everyone is angry and only adds to the impressions that the traffic is crazy.
But that is not the case.
A horn beep in Asia is not “Get out the way you idiot” like back home. I
t is instead how people say, in a friendly way “Hey, I’m here, watch out for me”.
If you are overtaking, going round blind corners, or doing anything the bikes and cars around you may not be aware of, just give your horn a little beep to warn others that you’re there. It’s friendly and considerate to do so, not rude.
But since that’s the case, don’t beep the horn to tell someone to get out the way.
That’s just not how it works in Asia.
3. Learn the traffic laws – formal and otherwise
First up obviously make sure you know which side of the road you’re supposed to drive on as it may be different to the one you’re used to.
There are also other formal traffic laws such as whether you can go through a red light if turning a certain way (a right-hand turn in the US), that’s it’s important to be aware of.
But much more important than that are the informal traffic laws. The conventions that have been adopted in different countries that ensure the smooth and safe flow of traffic.
For example where I am at the moment if someone is going straight across a junction they put their hazard warning lights on so everyone around them knows what they’re doing.
If you start driving in a country you’re unfamiliar with pay special attention to how others are driving around you and what they do to negotiate different situations.
If in doubt, follow a local.
An important note: As well as the above it would be remiss of me not to mention that:
- To legally be able to drive in a lot of countries you need an international drivers license
- Not all travel insurance covers driving motorbikes, make sure yours does and check whether you need a specific scooter/motorbike license from your home country for the cover to be valid. If you don’t have a proper scooter licence back home your insurance probably won’t cover you if you have an accident, just as they wouldn’t cover you to drive a car if you don’t have the proper licence.
Got any other concerns about learning how to drive a scooter? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them.
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