This is something I have not thought about for quite some time but after helping my youngest son learn to ride a pedal bike I thought I should write about target fixation. Target fixation is when a rider focused on something so much that they run directly into it, rather than avoiding it. Supposedly this was studied or at least documented when WWII fighter bombers would focus so intently on the target that they would neglect to pull up in time and crash into the target. I have also heard it referred to as “object fixation” however upon further research into what object fixation is – that is NOT what I will be writing about today. In the motorcycle realm of things, I am not sure we should actually be calling it “Target Fixation” but more of “Obstacle avoidance”, even though that’s a robotics term mainly around unmanned aircraft. I think the proper term should be Obstacle fixation.
Now that we have the nomenclature defined my point is that new riders have a tendency to be so focused on not hitting obstacles that they run right into them. It’s therefore my belief that so many people “used to ride” or use the term “I had to lay it down” which I translate into people having their heads up their ass (it’s happened to all of us and we all know that’s what really happened). I realized this as my kid was riding his peddle bike and I noticed that he is looking right at his front tire, or what he was trying not to hit. Somehow that’s the default behavior and it’s horrible. Never look at your front tire! Look down the road – your brain will calculate it all out – If by contrast you look at your tire or directly in front of you – you have already hit whatever you just noticed.
If you look far enough ahead you should be cool but every now and then things to pop into your frame of observation. Typically, in Kansas on back roads it’s an Ford F150 who was also not expecting you to be there and you both kick it into obstacle avoidance mode. So, there is a lot of driving on my side of the road at all times so my default mode can be to “hold the line”.
However sometimes holding the line is not super easy, one time during March Moto Madness there was a swarm of dirt bikes whom where not expecting anyone in any lane and came sliding around the corner taking up all the road and then they freaked when they saw me and Deathmagnet and they were all over the place. The dirt road was up an incline with the mountain side being on the right and the cliff side being on my left luckily, I was on the right so I had to come to a stop and let them figure it out. I flashback to that moment every now and then thinking what the hell would have happened if I would have been on the cliff side. Normally though it’s not a cliff or a F150, nine times out of ten it’s a rock, tree branch, tire, or someone’s entire exhaust system (but remember I have come across aircraft in my lane on back roads).
The trick to avoid the obstacle is to be aware of it, do not focus entirely on it and quickly visualize the imaginary safe path or at least a safe point in your brain and just compartmentalize everything to staying on that track, and try to stay relaxed. Do not worry about brakes, speed, RPM, bike angle, foot position, or if you packed enough wet wipes to clean up your chinos. This is something I wish I was better at, as I tighten a little bit more then I should and always think “How much is this going to cost”. Then I tend to ride away without accident and then get off the bike and take a few deep breaths. I remember the old quote “riding a motorcycle is not inherently more dangerous than a car but it is far less forgiving”. The muscle memory (that only comes with experience) is it to learn that your “locking up” or “freezing” and to instantly loosen up as you realize its happening. Here is my real-world example about 3 blocks from my house is a neat little road that eventually turns to dirt. So, I am used to hitting it that section of road at speed in “street” mode then switching to “Enduro Pro” mode in a mile later. The first corner is blind, goes downhill and breaks the left and then the right. I crossed the road at speed into the drop that breaks left just to find out the road had been resurfaced and there was about an inch of standing gravel for the next 3 blocks. I noticed this because the bike wasn’t turning left and in fact was well on its way to a wash out. I swear to you the first thing that I thought was “This is a hell of way to meet these people by flinging my motorbike into their yard… I wonder how much is going to break on the bike”. Then I realized I was understandable tense and my muscles where almost locked up, so I forced myself to focus back the safe track and loosen up, and swing my big ass to the other side of the bike the result being that I managed to get out of the mess without wrecking (and I totally should have wrecked).
I have provided a video of be going up Mosquito Pass and managing to object fixate on a giant rock and almost run into it. I have also provided images that allow you to visualize how I see them since I have reprogrammed my brain from its default behavior.
Best of riding and hope you manage to stay on the obstacle-free path!
Here are some references: