How to steer correctly – target fixation

What is target fixation?

The truth is, unless you have experienced it, you will never really know what it is. I’ve read a lot of articles on the subject, but it never really captures exactly what it’s all about, Or explain it properly.

Target fixation is a common occurrence, and something you deal with all the time.

A common racing term taught to all beginning racing drivers is “never look at the wall.” Why? Because if you look at the wall, you are going to hit it!

One of my favourite sayings is: “Your hands follow your eyes.” And whatever you focus on with your eyes, is where you will turn the steering wheel and where the car will go – whether logical or not.

Have you been driving in Europe or America recently and wondered why you start to drive toward the wall while going through a tunnel? Or maybe you have started to drift towards the central reservation? Or perhaps, you find yourself inexplicably “drawn to the lights” of an oncoming car at night? These are all examples of target fixation.

The most common occurrence of target fixation of course is brake lights. Let’s look at a scenario: the guy in front of you slams on his brakes and for some inexplicable reason you can’t take your eyes of his brake lights. Before you know it, you are exchanging insurance and licence details. And guess what? Because you hit him from behind, you’re at fault in the accident!

What’s the best way to counter target fixation?

If you know where target fixation starts from you will better understand the phenomenon and how to avoid it. Let’s look at some more examples:
1. You’re driving down the road and suddenly come across a bicycle in front of you. You hoot your horn to warn it to move over. However, as the cyclist turns to see where the noise is coming from and because “his hands follow his eyes,” he swerves into the lane in front of you.
2. When you look down to turn the dial of the radio you start to pull to the left.
3. When you wave at a friend on the opposite side of the road, you immediately start to drift towards them.
4. You are driving down the road minding your own business when suddenly without looking, a child steps into the road in front of your vehicle. Eye contact is made. You slam on the brakes. The screaming child darts left and for some inexplicable reason you turn left following the scampering child! The outcome is inevitable, but avoidable if you know what to do.

As an instructor in my own driving school, I see examples of target fixation with my students all the time. Usually the target is our bright orange cones that demarcate various driving exercises. I can often “sense” rather than see what the student does even before the manoeuvre is complete.

The Secret to Avoiding Target Fixation

Look where you want the car to go. Even if the object moves in another direction, stay focused and look where you want the car to go. It’s that simple.

When going into a corner for example, turn your head as you go into the corner, and automatically, as if by magic, your hands naturally start to follow, and the car starts a gentle turn.

Remember, “your hands follow your eyes” and “If you look at it you will hit it!”

In the meantime “be aware, the target is near” and note that target fixation is a phenomenon that you can overcome.