Video: Target Fixation

Hey, Watch Where You're Going!

The most frequent cause of motorcycle crashes isn’t left-turning cars, or leaping deer, but our own brains. Buried deep in that squishy lump of gray matter are instincts millions of years old that kept us and our mammalian ancestors from becoming the main course on some large toothy critter’s lunch menu. But the same instincts that protected us then, and still do now, can turn on us. That's what you see in this viral YouTube video showing a motorcyclist colliding with bicyclists.

The motorcycle rider crashing into these bicycles almost certainly experienced a phenomenon called target fixation. The phrase was coined during World War II to describe what happened to fighter pilots who collided with the enemy planes they were shooting at, or crashed into the targets they were strafing on the ground. So how do we avoid target fixation?

You’ve probably been riding along when something––a rock, some roadkill, a rusty car muffler––appeared on the pavement ahead. Instead of going around it, you found yourself riding straight at it as if some mysterious hands were steering the bike. This wasn't an X-Files moment, just your brain doing its job by focusing your attention completely on the danger to the exclusion of everything else.

The problem is your brain’s reaction to danger conflicts with another set of reactions that tell your hands to steer the bike where your eyes are looking. When your sight is focused on the road ahead, it’s easy to keep it between the lines and out of the roadside ditch. Look where you want to go, and you’ll go there. But when you’re staring wide-eyed at a pothole as big as a wading pool, your brain thinks that’s where you want to go, and it takes you there.

Avoiding target fixation is as easy as erasing an ancient, deeply rooted reaction to danger with one more suited to modern times––which is to say, not that easy at all. But it can be done, and without putting yourself in harm’s way. The trick is to shift your attention away from the thing you don’t want to hit and concentrate instead on a safe path around it. You can practice this with leaves on the road, or patches in the asphalt, so the learning curve doesn't have such a steep slope of consequences.

Another tip: If you ride with your eyes focused on the pavement just a few yards ahead of your front wheel, try lifting your gaze to a point father down the road. Distance equals time, and the sooner you spot a potential hazard the more time you have to plot a safe course around it.