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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.