Understanding Target Fixation: Something Worth Looking At!

Recently, I had a training experience, where I ended up with a couple of damaged ribs and an arm twice it’s normal size. The objective of the training exercise was to learn to deal with looking at where you want to go in a high stress situation and not at the distraction.

Unfortunately, the student who was driving at the time, didn’t handle stress very well and drove the vehicle off the track and hit me with it. I was being the distracter at the time! When questioned afterwards all he remember was that he locked on to me and that’s where the vehicle went and he couldn’t do anything about it.

What is Target Fixation

What he suffered from was “target fixation” which is a phenomenon that happens when the brain is focused so intently on an object that awareness towards any other objects or dangers is completely diminished. It is usually associated with stressful situations.

The term seems to have originated from World War II fighter pilots, who spoke of a tendency to want to fly into targets during a strafing run. It also has been known to cause skydiving deaths, in which the skydiver will focus on the target or the ground and forget to pull the cord to open the parachute!

From a driving perspective, many rear-enders are caused when the driver is surprised by the brake lights, from the forward vehicle, coming on “suddenly”. Because the driver is focused intently on the brake lights, that’s where the vehicle goes. This has resulted in many a pile up when the error is repeated. In effect, what is happening is, the driver is not concentrating on the job at hand and gets caught by surprise which then leads to a high stress situation and bingo.

Another accident type in which target fixation contributes is head on collisions. I once worked with a logistics organisation. We had two trucks working in one particular area and these were the only vehicles within a 100 km radius. Oh no, I can hear you say!! Yes. They had a head on collision!! Because of the scarcity of vehicles neither one had expected another vehicle to be coming down the road. Both drivers got caught by surprise and looked at each other and locked on!

How to Avoid Target Fixation

In essence then, your vehicle will have a tendency to go where you look.

  1. Your hands will follow your eyes.
    So, to avoid target fixation, we have to keep focusing, if you like, on a positive rather than a negative goal. To be able to do this successfully, we must not be caught by surprise which leads to a high stress situation. To do that successfully, we must be concentrating on the job at hand and not let ourselves become distracted.
  2. Expect the unexpected.
    Like a fast moving bus coming around a blind corner on our side of the road. Have a plan worked out if it happens.
  3. Work out “what if” scenarios.
    This way we can avoid the high stress driving situations and keep focused on looking at where we want to go.


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