Target Fixation

Inspector Ian Paul, TRPG Motorcycle Unit, Police Scotland

The biking season is well underway and I hope you are managing to get out and enjoy the fantastic roads and scenery that Scotland has to offer. However, it’s vitally important that you keep yourself safe as motorcycle casualty figures remain disappointingly high. Despite making up only 1% of road traffic motorcyclists in Scotland account for 16% of road deaths and in 3 out of 4 crashes it’s the actions of the biker that has caused the collision.

In previous editions of Scottish Biker we have looked at issues around cornering and overtaking and unfortunately these manoeuvres still feature highly as causation factors in crash statistics. If you haven’t seen these articles I would highly recommend tracking down a back issue and giving them a read.

For this article I’d like to focus on the phenomenon known as ‘target fixation’ and explain why this can get us into trouble and what we can do to avoid it. Target fixation happens when we observe something in our field of vision, usually a hazard of some description and focus on it so much that we head straight for it. This can be a pothole, a patch of mud or the verge on the outside of a corner when we’ve misread our speed for a bend! In all these cases our eyes lock onto the hazard and panic takes hold resulting in us heading straight for the danger, usually with a bad outcome. Of course, our primary objective would be to avoid being in a dangerous position in the first place but being human means that sometimes even the most accomplished riders can get things wrong.

So how do we avoid this? Well in very simple terms look where you want to go. A bike tends to go where the rider is looking, so when you become aware of a specific hazard, it’s vital to keep your head and eyes up and continue scanning the whole scene, not fixate on the hazard. Keep your eyes on the furthest point to which you want to go. By scanning your vision will take in the hazard as well as everything else, and this will allow you to negotiate the situation safely without being drawn towards the danger zone. Focus on looking for a path around or away from the hazard not on the hazard itself. Look through a gap rather than at the edges of it. Look at where you want to be at the end of a tight turn, not at the pothole half way through.

A simple technique, which you will probably remember from your U-turn lessons as a learner, emphasises how looking where you want to go works. When a bike needs to be manoeuvred in a very tight (full-lock) turn, look as far over your shoulder as you can in the direction you want to turn. This will help you make the turn and is essentially the same technique, looking where you want to go, you want to utilise on the open road.

As riders we are extremely vulnerable. We have no protective shell around us and the stability of our bike can be adversely affected by the condition of the road surface (potholes, manhole covers, debris, surface spills). Set against this, we have the advantage of height, positioning flexibility and the acceleration that our bikes provide. Make the most of these advantages.

Whenever we ride, our safety depends on our actions and our ability to anticipate and avoid the dangers that occur on the roads. It’s essential that we maintain a high level of attention, good hazard perception and excellent awareness of what’s going on around us.

Our ability to sense danger in a situation increases with experience so please ride within your capabilities and take care on the roads. Stay safe during the rest of the biking season.