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IN YOUR EYES: Target fixation is dangerous

Posted on 13 May 2017

There are certain things you just never forget, even if you tried. Here’s a little throwback to one of those things. This happened in 1995, yet the memory’s still as fresh as the baked fish I had last night.

My two-week-old Ducati 900SS laid on its side. The smell of abraded plastic and metal mixed with the sweet aroma of Shell unleaded hung in the air.

I had just hit a dog, that sickening feeling of its body wrapped around the the front wheel made me feel as if I had hit it directly with my own hands.

I was travelling down this road in bliss, when I suddenly spotted the dog on the left shoulder of the road. It shocked me. I hit the front Brembos with all four fingers and the rear end of the bike lifted up high in the air into a rolling stoppie.

But the poor dog wasn’t even directly in front of me. The bike had somehow swerved all the way onto the edge of the opposing lane and made contact with it. What happened? How did the bike steer itself?

A few days later, as I recovered and while Mr. Italian Rumbler was being repaired in the garage, I picked up my first issue of Sport Rider. There was this article by Nick Ienatsch on guess what…?

Vision. Or more specifically, the danger of locking our vision on threatening situations, called target fixation. When target fixation sets in due to panic, we lock our vision onto a hazard or situation, hence steering unconsciously towards it, and hitting the very thing we had hoped to avoid in the beginning. Ironic.

There’s a simple saying: “You go where you look”.

That was all my mistake. I had locked my eyes on the poor dog causing my vision to tunnel down on it. Next, I jumped on my brakes in panic and continued to unconsciously steer the bike from the right side of the road, hitting into the dog on the other side.

Let’s learn from my misfortune. It’s free.

I should’ve looked away from the dog and continued on. Our human instinct is hardwired to “keep an eye” on a dangerous situation.

But our job is to train ourselves to look away from the space of danger to escape.

Next time you ride, look to the sides of that manhole cover and you will miss it. You will hit it when you keep looking at it. This not only applies to riding, but also when you drive. Have you seen a driver heading straight for an obstruction, although there’s plenty of space on either side? Yup, that’s target fixation.

This same principle applies to cornering as well. Even with too much entry speed, if you concentrate on your line while applying correct throttle control, the bike should stick to your chosen line. If you look at the outside of the turn instead, the bike will overshoot, although the bike still has much, much more tyre grip and ground clearance. You go where you look.

Here’s an example: https://youtu.be/dciyhfaScAo

Another example is when you’re riding up your favourite canyon road and a car surprises you in the opposite lane around a blind corner. If you panic and target fixate on the car, you will steer towards it! Heck, you may even steer into another vehicle in the same lane! You go where you look!

Here’s one more example: https://youtu.be/dNFaAqS2f18

Besides that, remember to keep a wide field of view. Resist the temptation to let it tunnel down into the distance at all cost. This happens the faster you ride, but just keep telling yourself to push it wide. I know, it’s fun to experience the rush when you do so, but you will have no time to avoid it if something, say a car, wanders onto your path. With wide vision, you would’ve anticipated the driver’s intentions.

Another positive aspect of wide vision is when the world around you seems to “slow down”. That’s good because it stops you from being overwhelmed by the perception of speed.

Additionally, wide vision allows you to scan your surroundings, including the road sides for things that may jump onto your path, including pedestrians, animals and other vehicles.

Imagine watching your favourite movie in IMAX 3D. Think about the awesome field of view. Do you want to watch it through a toilet paper tube with one eye closed?

Keep repeating to yourself, “I go where I look” and “wide view” every time you ride until it becomes second nature.

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