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Street Savvy: 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 video, and here’s how you can avoid it.

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.

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.

Categories: Motorcycles  


  1. Wendl Ormsby
    Posted on: May 10, 2013 6:32 am

    I have been riding high performance motorcycles for 45 years and have never experienced “target fixation”. The moron in this vid clip should have his mc license revoked for life. There are way too many “credit card” wanabees riding these days.

  2. Gary Sloan
    Posted on: May 3, 2013 12:32 pm

    I have been riding cruiser motorcycles for years. I nave experienced target fixation, especially back when I raced dirt bikes. I rode bicycles on mountain roads years ago. Motorcycles are dangerous and you must accept the risks when you ride. I have been the victim of a serious accident where I was rear ended by a car when I was at a stop. Though I realize motorcycles are dangerous I still ride, but I will not ride a bicycle on the open roads! To many bicyclist ride 10 mph on a road where other vehicles are doing 50 and have the attitude, “I deserve to be here just as much as any other vehicle.” They may be right, dead right!

  3. Simon
    Posted on: May 3, 2013 12:16 pm

    Target fixation may have been part of the problem, but there are clearly two points where the biker brakes. It’s as natural as the target fixation reflex, and just as dangerous in a turn. Looks like this is a case of lack of experience, not excess of anything, certainly not speed.

  4. phil N
    Posted on: May 3, 2013 8:34 am

    I clearly saw that cyclist put his bike in reverse and swerve at the same time !.

    But on a serious note. The guy on the MC wasn’t even trying on that corner… there has to be something in the “fixation” theory, I have noticed it once or twice when riding with a group and now no longer do that simply because its too easy to miss the real issue.

  5. Jesse
    Posted on: May 2, 2013 1:20 pm

    This guy should have had no problem buzzing right past these bicyclists… He had plenty of lean-angle in reserve. Instead, he target-fixates on the thing he doesn’t want to hit, and now the media is touting another accident as being “caused by excessive speed”. Wrong. This was caused by excessive ignorance. Motorcyclists: Get training and be an ambassador for your sport.

  6. Josh
    Posted on: May 2, 2013 8:03 am

    I disagree, daGeeze. That biker took that corner well within his skill level and was under full control. You might have seen the loads of Youtube videos featuring that same corner. People camp out there and watch for screw ups. The rider in the provided video found himself a victim of target fixation IMO… and most other people who have seen the video too. It has made its rounds on the web now.

  7. jeff
    Posted on: May 1, 2013 4:01 pm

    I had no idea bicycles were so dangerous??

  8. daGeezer
    Posted on: May 1, 2013 10:36 am

    I totally disagree that this was a “target fixation” crash. This was purely the result of an unskilled motorcyclist riding way over his head arrogantly assuming the world would watch out for him. If there had been a slow moving car in the lane the biker would be the one in the ambulance. He should be ticketed for reckless driving, sued for thousands, and lose his license.

  9. mike fleming
    Posted on: May 1, 2013 9:53 am

    I ride both motorcycles and bikes.
    I`ve been riding big sportbikes for years but I would still be pissed and sue the shit out of that asshole if he hit me. He should not have been going that fast with bicycles near by. There were bicycles coming along behind the guy he hit. That chump should not even be on a motorcycle.