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Target Fixation - Question and Answer
If you've read Keith Code's 'Twist of the Wrist' books, you may recall he talked about 'Survival Reactions'. He described these as the unwanted but instinctive attempts to preserve us from harm, that work against our learned responses. For example, we may have spent hours working on a nice progressive squeeze when practicing emergency stops, but in a real-life crisis, it's hard not to revert to a sudden grab and stamp on the brakes. I crashed precisely this way several times till I got the hang of it. It's not an accident modern machines are fitted with ABS. Panic grabs can be worked on, but rather more subtle is another of Code's Survival Reactions. It's called 'target fixation'. If you want to know more, read on.
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 there's a threat of personal harm, maybe from hitting something hard like a car, from running out of road in a corner or because we've just spotted a patch of diesel - because it's a threat, 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" because that's how we get there. It works... except in an emergency.
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. We need to find a safe route past the threat so instead of having our attention drawn towards what we don't want to do (hitting the car, running out of road mid-corner or losing control on the diesel) we need to snap our focus to the way OUT of trouble instead. Is there a route past the car? Can we look around the bend and lean over more to get there? Is there clear tarmac past the diesel? We need to recognise the threat of target fixation if we to find a way out of trouble.
Q I still don't get this. Surely it's easy to avoid a hazard?
A That's the theory in a lot of road safety literature. In practice it ignores the way the brain works under stress. As I mentioned, Code identified target fixation as an instinctive reaction to danger which overwhelms rational decision-making. After the event - usually when we've got over the adrenalin of the scare - it's blindingly obvious we were target-fixated, but mid-emergency it's incredibly difficult to overcome because the brain is hardwired to avoid danger. Unfortunately, these reactions evolved several million years before anyone invented a motorcycle. That's why they are completely inappropriate.
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 advice to look away from the hazard is valid, we actually need to prevent the instinctive target fixation in the first place. And to do that we need to understand something about the trigger - 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. So the moment we start to think that our space is being squeezed by other road users, that we're running out of room in the corner, or that we can't avoid the slippery surface, we're setting up the conditions in which survival reactions and target fixation will kick in.
Q So I need to improve my observation?
A Sort of... because the earlier we see a hazards, the less that can take us by SURPRISE! And it turns out that it's SURPRISE! that's the trigger for these survival reactions. As soon as the situation ahead develops in a way that we weren't expecting, SURPRISE! kicks in, and then we're at risk of triggering the survival reactions.
So observation is part of it - we need to be aware of what's around us - road layout, road surface, other vehicles and so on - but we also need to know what we CAN'T SEE. And then we need to ask the "What if...?" question to anticipate what might happen next. Motorcycle Roadcraft says we need to consider "what we can reasonably expect to happen". In fact this isn't enough. We need to expect the UNREASONABLE. If we only ever expect what usually happens, we'll be caught out by what doesn't normally happen. It's too late to think when the car pulls out, because we will trip those survival reactions. We have to be holding in our heads a plan to deal with that car long before it starts to move. Similarly, we need to anticipate that the easy-looking corner ahead will tighten up or that the far side of the roundabout has a diesel slick over it. It's running through "What if...?" scenarios before they become real that prevents SURPRISE!
Q So I'm scanning and planning. But running into corners I still freeze on occasion. What else can help?
A A bit of lateral thinking. You wouldn't be freezing if you were confident in your abilities to get out of trouble. So going back to basics, everything we do on a bike involves either a change of speed or a change of direction. If we aren't confident with steering, braking and to a lesser extent accelerating, any threatening situation that relies on these skills to get out of trouble is going to scare us. For example, on my Survival Skills Performance courses I am regularly helping riders who find themselves struggling with cornering. What I usually find is either a lack of confidence with the steering or a lack of confidence with the brakes. Sometimes both.
Q So how does that cause me to freeze?
A Simple. On the courses I run, it turns out that the rider isn't really going too fast, but just thinks he/she is! And because the rider thinks "I'm going too fast" it kicks off the target fixation and frozen steering which is another survival reaction. So having scared themselves, on the next bend not only are they very slow, but they turn into the corner far too early, which leads them to run wide on the exit to the bend, setting off target fixation. So it all becomes a bit of a vicious circle. It goes wrong because you expect it to go wrong.
Q OK, I believe you. So what can I do to improve my cornering now?
A Not surprisingly my first suggestion would be get some training. On my cornering courses, as soon as we work on more positive use of the brakes and steering to get the speed off quickly and to change direction rapidly, the problem usually vanishes. Knowing that the bike can be slowed and steered around the bend removes the trigger for the target fixation.
If you can't get yourself onto a Survival Skills training course, then my advice would be to work on braking. You should know how to do a decent emergency stop. Practice that skills off-road till you can do really good ones, and then just apply the same basic approach (without pulling up quite so hard) on the road. Learning to sort your approach speed on corners is 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. Get moderately competent at that and itt'll take away the fear of running in too fast. Next learn all about counter-steering, then go and practice quick steering exercises. Start off-road with some swerves, then take what you've learned out on the road and get confident at making rapid changes of direction in bends. In both cases, start slow and cautiously, then build up the speed as your control gets better. But if you really don't know how to do a safe emergency stop, get some professional help!
And if you really want to fix cornering, find out about the Survival Skills 'Point and Squirt' approach to cornering, which is all about going in deep, and making a slower but more rapid change of direction when we can see where the road goes next, before accelerating upright out of the corner. Having the reference points that I teach - 'landmarks' if you like - means you always know exactly what you've going to be doing and where you've going to do it. So it's a positive approach, where we 'seize the corner by the scruff of the neck and shake it out the way we want to to go' approach, rather than a passive, "where is the corner taking me?" response.
Q How do I know I'm getting it right?
A Simple - apart from not scaring yourself so often, you'll find you're more relaxed on the bike.
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