Target Fixation - Question and Answer

Q   I've heard quite a lot about something called target fixation, but I don't know what it is?

A Target fixation is the state we find ourselves in when we can't drag our attention away from a hazard on the road. It nearly always occurs when the rider is worried, often about hitting something like a car, running out of road in a corner or riding over a patch of diesel - that's why we look at it.

Q But it seems obvious to me that if there is something dangerous in front of you, you ought to look at it?

A Obvious - but wrong! Right from basic training we tell trainees "you go where you look".

Q Alright, so  the basic theory is to look where you want to go, but why does this work? We can't steer the bike with our eyes so what do you mean?

A Given half a chance, any hazard will grab the whole of our attention, and instead of finding a way out of trouble we freeze and go deeper into it. Essentially this is a passive reaction to a hazard.

Instead of thinking of what we don't want to do, such as hitting the car, the diesel in the road or running wide in the corner, we should concentrate instead on what we want to achieve.

We need to deliberately choose to focus and ride on the safe route which allows us to negotiate the hazard with the least possible risk.

If a car does pull out in front of us, look to see if you can pass ahead or behind rather than at the driver's door. If there is a diesel spill in the road, look at the bit of road surface that is clear rather than the slick. If we are running into a bend a bit too hot, look as far ahead up the road to the limit point rather than the hedge and steer the bike to it.

What we want is to grab control of the situation and be proactive in finding a way out of trouble.

Q I still don't get this. Surely it's easy to avoid a hazard?

A It's surprisingly difficult and it helps if we understand a bit about the way the mind works under stress. Keith Code has the answer. Target fixation is what he calls a Survival Reaction, where rational decision-making is overwhelmed by an instinctive reaction to danger - for instance banging on the brakes when we see a slippery surface.

After the event, often when we are picking up the bike, it's blindingly obvious it was a stupid thing to do, but the instinct to slow down when suddenly confronted with a slippery surface is incredibly hard to overcome because the brain is hardwired to avoid danger. Unfortunately, these reactions evolved several million years before we started riding and are usually completely inappropriate.

Other survival reactions include ineffective braking, ineffective throttle control and frozen steering.

Q OK, so I know I shouldn't, but I still can't seem to do anything else but look at what I'm going to hit?

A Whilst all the advice to look away from the hazard is valid and valuable, to prevent the instinctive survival reaction from overwhelming our planned riding, we need to know and recognise the trigger events - ie. what state of mind sets off the survival reaction in the first place.

At the most basic level it's fear of being hurt. For example Code identifies some of the trigger events that make us fear for our safety as thinking we are running out of room, worrying we going too fast, and awareness of dangers posed by the road layout or other road users.

Q So I need to improve my observation?

A The more hazards we see, the less take us by surprise. We need to be aware of what's around us - road layout, road surface, other vehicles, what we can't see but may be there. Having scanned one area, move onto the next set  of hazards.

The earlier we see hazards, the more time we have to plan. Look as far ahead as possible, scan to either side, and don't ignore the mirrors - hazards can come up on us from behind.

We should check the road surface while it is still in the distance - it's too late when there are other more pressing problems to deal with.

We can use peripheral vision, and use road positioning to our advantage, moving out from behind obstacles if safe to do so.

Q Surely, all I have to do is have a good look round when that car pulls out in front of me and I'll be fine? You said scanning is useful but only a starting point - explain please?

A Scanning is useful, but it's only a starting point. There is a long way to go beyond that. It's too late to think when the car pulls out, because we will panic! We have to be planning our riding long before that, running through various "what if" scenarios in our mind, so that we are not taken by surprise when the worst case scenario does develop in front of us!

In other words, we should always be planning ahead and looking for escape routes.

Q So I'm scanning and planning. But I still freeze on occasion. What else can help?

A A bit of lateral thinking. Now we know what the triggers the reactions, we can sort out what part of our riding actually causes the problem.

We wouldn't be worrying if we were confident in our abilities to get ourselves out of trouble when we find ourselves in it.

When you think about it, everything we do on a bike can be reduced to either changing speed or direction. If we aren't confident with steering or braking, any situation that relies on us to use those skills to get out of trouble is going to scare us. An emergency stop or a sudden swerve when a car pulls out in front of us can get us clear of danger... but what if we can't do one or the other?

There are two main areas of concern for many riders:

    a lack of confidence with steering
    a lack of confidence with the brakes

To a lesser extent, a lack of confidence with the throttle can also get us into trouble.

Many riders wonder how this generates target fixation. Consider cornering. Frequently on the courses I run, the rider isn't going too fast, but just thinks he/she is!! Usually this combines with ineffective steering, which often leads to turning into corners far too early, which in turn leads to a line which runs out of room on the exit to the corner, setting off the target fixation panic reaction which is the problem most riders recognise.

Miraculously, as soon as the rider is trained to use the brakes and steering positively on the approach to hazards and to follow the "point and squirt" line in corners, the rider's confidence in his/her own ability to get out of trouble by stopping and steering goes right up, the hazard no longer presents the massive obstacle in the rider's mind that it was, and the target fixation problem largely disappears.

Q OK, I believe you. What can I do to improve my cornering now?

A My advice would be if you don't already know how to do it, find out about countersteering and go and practice.

Second, practice braking - again if you don't know how to do a safe emergency stop, get some help and start practicing.

Third, start using the brakes positively to sort your approach speed on corners - it's the only way you'll learn how to judge your braking. You don't have to brake harshly, just avoid rolling off and coasting into the bend

Finally find out about the "Point and Squirt" approach to cornering - going upright deep into the corner, getting the speed low at the point where you turn, turning the bike quickly so it's upright and points at the exit, and driving out positively. Going right back to one of our first remarks, it's a positive, seizing the corner by the scruff of the neck approach, rather than a passive, where is the corner taking me line.

And it works!

Q How do I know I'm getting it right?

A Simple - apart from not scaring yourself so often, you'll be much more relaxed in your riding!

There are some tips elsewhere in the Riding Skills section about all these techniques should you wish to read them.