Target fixation occurs when excessive focus on an object causes the operator of a vehicle to collide with the object. The term was first used during World War II to describe fighter pilots who flew into the very targets they were strafing.
Today, it’s a big problem for motorcyclists because their machines are sensitive to subtle body movements that cause them to steer in the same direction as their gaze. Target fixation can also happen to motorists. Here are two ways this commonly occurs:
Target Fixation Caused By “Rubbernecking”
If a motorist turned his head 90 degrees to his direction of travel, his car would tend to drift in the direction of his gaze. If he made no attempt to compensate for this, he would eventually drive off the road or into the opposing lane.
Sometimes motorists become so fixated on a traffic accident off to the side of the road, that their cars drift in the same direction as their gaze. This causes them to crash into a parked vehicle or hit a person on the same side of the road. This also happens when police officers pull motorists over for traffic violations.
Target Fixation While Driving in Thick Fog
Motorists often find their way through thick fog by following the taillights of the cars in front. This is a dangerous practice because they get little or no visual cues of their speed. Their only way of knowing when the car ahead is slowing is by its brake lights. Problems occur when the car in front slows by downshifting.
Sometimes a driver will fixate and “follow” the tail light of a parked car on the shoulder. This often ends tragically with the moving car rear ending the parked car. A similar phenomenon can happen to fatigued drivers at night who fixate on the taillights of the car ahead.
How to Avoid Target Fixation
When there’s an accident, breakdown, or other incident occurring on the side or shoulder of the road, allow plenty of space and keep your eyes on the road where you want to go while passing by. Actively scan ahead and never fixate on where you don’t want to go. This includes the rear end of the car driving in front. It’s a potential obstacle you could hit if it suddenly slows down. Allow plenty of following distance.
When driving in fog, slow down so that your stopping distance doesn’t exceed the distance that you can see. Use the painted lines that indicate your lane as a visual reference. When the fog is too thick, get off at an exit. Otherwise, pull well off the road. Turn off your lights but turn on your emergency flashers.