TOTW: Target fixation: you go where you look

The riding tips on these pages are my personal opinion about matters related to motorcycle riding. They are not the official position of any organization, and are for your consideration only. They are not hard and fast rules, they should not necessarily be applied in all circumstances, and they should not be applied without thinking. Always use your judgement and take all current safety factors into account while riding. You are responsible for your riding, not anyone else (especially me). These tips were originally published by a motorcycle riding course, called “Tip of the Week” (the reason for the TOTW in the titles).

What’s the problem?

What’s the common advice to participants in dozens of sports that involve hitting a ball with something (a club, a bat, a racket, a mallet, a paddle, . . .)?

“Keep your eye on the ball!”

One of the products of your body’s eye-brain-muscle system is that if you want to hit something, you need to look at it intently. On a motorcycle, it is also true that if you look at something intently you will likely hit it.

When riding, we call this tendency “target fixation.” If an obstacle appears in or near your path, staring at it will greatly increase you chances of hitting it. Your body’s feedback mechanism will cause you to steer directly toward an obstacle you’re staring at. As you see it approaching and your panic increases, you will stare more intently, and home in even more accurately.

Target fixation affects your riding in other ways too. You’re experiencing this problem if you experience any of the following symptoms.

You keep hitting minor obstacles (sand patches, oil slicks, paper bags) that you were trying to avoid.

You have to constantly correct your steering when riding through a curve, because you are looking a short distance ahead and driving to that point, instead of looking all the way through the curve.

You have trouble maintaining your balance in crowded slow-speed situations like parking lots, because you’re looking at all the obstacles.

Solution?

You must develop a habit that counteracts target fixation: look where you want to go, not where you don’t want to go. And, like many skills, you must practice this in good conditions, in everyday riding, so it will be automatic in a crisis.

Develop the habit of considering your eyes part of your steering system. Your first step in any steering manoeuvre, then, must be to consciously look where you want the bike to go. Don’t look, for long, at things that you don’t want to drive over. In a curve, look far ahead, around the curve, not at the next few metres.

Practice obstacle avoidance using your eyes too. Pick an approaching spot on the road, and avoid it by looking at the clear path beside it, then letting your steering reaction follow naturally.

Finally, when you do find yourself faced with an emergency involving an obstacle, you will be better prepared for the most critical technique in collision avoidance: look at the path of safety, not at the obstacle.

A handy reminder phrase for this situation is, “Look where you go, go where you look.”


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