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Target Fixation - Part 1

Sometimes we riders tend to minimize the risks we hear about. Take, for example, what every student of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation has heard about 'target fixation'. This, of course, is the phenomena wherein our motorcycles tend to go in the direction we are looking and is usually described with an example familiar to all -- that if you see a pothole in the street ahead of you and don't take your eyes off it you are likely to hit it.

While that is true, it is too trivial an example to get our attention appropriately. We are left with the opinion that 'target fixation' is of trivial concern because we all know that we can, if we try, avoid that pothole. Following are a set of messages that will change your opinion about 'target fixation' for life. This is a real life case study that may save your life if you take it seriously.

(Karen Miller has authorized me to make this case study public.)

Sunday, November 12, 1995 @ 3:30 p.m., near Cleveland, Texas.

There were four of us, riding three motorcycles, out for a ride in the country. Elaine, Road Captain, was in the lead on her Honda Magna (700 cc's), riding in the 'left track'. Karen Miller was in the 'slot' (right track) riding her Honda Shadow (500 cc's), and I was riding 'drag' (last) on my Honda GoldWing (1200 cc's) and carrying a guest from Canada, Judy, as a passenger.

We had been on the road since 11:15 that morning and were on the return leg of the trip. It was a clear, though nippy day (60 degree's) with mild traffic on the country road at the time. The road had many gentle curves to it and nobody seemed to have any difficulty negotiating them. We typically drove at posted speed limits and were at approximately 55 MPH at the time of this accident.

I mentioned that Karen was riding in the 'slot' position. We do this with all new members to our group because it is the safest position and we watch how they handle themselves in the group before letting them take any other position. This position keeps the newer drivers as far away from a potential head-on collision as possible.

All three bikes had just come out of a mild right turning curve. Road conditions were nearly perfect with the exception that the lanes seemed to be slightly narrower than one might expect. A white pickup truck was approaching us traveling at somewhat below normal speed in the opposite lane. As we completed the curve I noticed that Karen was in the left track rather than the right one (not unusual after negotiating a curve), but instead of moving to the right to get back into the 'slot', she seemed to be aimed directly for the white truck. She had apparently 'target fixated' (locked her eyes on that truck) and panicked. She (very quickly) crossed the centerline in the road (by about 6 inches) and was headed for a head-on with the truck (she was leaning towards the right, but the bike kept moving leftwards - counter-steering totally forgotten!) when the driver of the truck took very aggressive action to try to avoid the accident and pulled it sharply to the right. This successfully avoided a head-on collision, but Karen still sideswiped the truck, hitting it at it's left-front quarter-panel, and all along its left side from front to back. The combined speed at impact was in excess of 90 MPH.

The impact was heard by Elaine who was two seconds ahead of Karen, myself (two seconds behind Karen), and all the neighbors in the area. Karen's bike did an instantaneous 90 degree bounce off the truck (towards the right), and ended up on the right shoulder of the road pinning her right leg under it. The bike appeared to have exploded (it didn't actually explode) when it hit the truck with pieces of metal, windscreen, and plastic all over the road.

The truck continued moving towards the shoulder of its lane, aided by the force of the impact, and ended up in a ditch having run into a culvert. The driver of the truck sustained facial lacerations from a broken front window, and his passenger appeared unhurt.

Karen, meanwhile, had suffered massive body trauma during the accident. Her left leg was peeled open (literally shredded) from hip to lower leg, compound fractures in several places both above and below the left knee, several ribs on the left side had been broken and punctured her left lung, her liver was 'fractured' as apparently was her spleen, and her diaphragm had been pierced.

It appears (judging from a look at her helmet after the fact) that she had landed on her face and skidded to a stop in the dirt/gravel that was the shoulder of the road. The bike was on its right side, rear-lights still on, dripping gasoline from a ruptured tank. Karen was face down, her right leg, from the knee down, under the right saddlebag, her left leg was above the motorcycle, pointed at an impossible angle towards her head, bootless, and her left thigh bone (from her hip) was protruding through her clothes for a length of over an inch. We inspected her for signs of bleeding, and though we saw plenty of blood, there seemed to be very little of it ongoing that would require some means to control it and we simply would not move her for fear of greater damage.

Karen was moaning loudly and regularly, obviously in great pain. Her breathing was irregular and shallow.

Just after the accident I announced to Elaine, via CB, "Karen's down!", and she pulled her bike off the road to the right, then made a U-turn and returned to the scene. I, meanwhile, clamped down on both brakes, avoiding debris that was all over the road, and brought my bike to a stop just past where Karen lay, had my passenger get off the bike, and disembarked myself. Though my passenger was first to reach Karen, she was of no help whatever. She (Judy) was in shock and was hugging herself in grief. I was next to reach Karen. Three other men reached her within a matter of seconds after I did.

We determined that Karen was alive, that an ambulance was needed immediately, and that she was breathing. One of them wanted to move her (gasoline was spilling out of the tank), and was out-voted instantly. No attempt was made to remove her helmet, though that had also been suggested by one of the other men and out-voted just as quickly.


Elaine (also CPR and First Aid trained) got there and was asked to call 911. Her cellular phone was on my bike and she went to make that call attempt (unsuccessfully - out of range). A neighbor, however, confirmed that a call had already been placed.

I announced to Karen that she had been in an accident, that help was on its way, that she was going to be all right, and asked her to try not to move until they arrived. Two of the other men then took over a 'head watch' - that is, they got down on their hands and knees and continued to reassure Karen while protecting her head from movement of any kind. I then did a close inspection of the rest of Karen's body looking for a major bleeding condition. Even though her thighbone was completely broken and protruding from her pants, (two inches of bone having been amputated by the impact), she had miraculously not severed the major arteries in her leg and there was not major external bleeding that I could see.

I went back to my bike and got out my first aid kit, latex gloves, triangle bandages and breathing mask and took them over to Karen. As there was clearly blood all over the motorcycle and under Karen, I elected to put the latex gloves on. However, I was in rather a lot of confusion myself at the moment and found (I actually watched myself doing it) that instead of opening the zip-lock bag that contained the gloves, I opened the breathing mask package instead. Realizing that I was confused, I put everything in my hands down on the ground next to Karen for use by the other men, and stepped away and began traffic control instead, kicking motorcycle parts off the roadway along the way.

I asked one of the neighbors to get me a fire extinguisher, just in case, which she promptly did. Another brought a blanket from her house and covered Karen with it while we waited for the ambulance.

The ambulance arrived within minutes (possibly five), though it seemed much faster than that at the time. The EMS team was professional in the extreme. At first sight of the extent of Karen's injuries one of the EMS techs instructed the other to order a life flight to the scene. He then told us we had to get the motorcycle off of Karen and four men helped me lift it while the EMS tech lifted her left leg and straightened it out as we got the bike away,( constantly talking to Karen, acknowledging that it hurt and that he had no choice.)

We admonished the EMS tech not to take her helmet off of her until she was in the ambulance, and he readily agreed. The EMS tech cut significant parts of Karen's clothing off of her to inspect her back and sides for trauma. A stretcher board was placed on the ground next to Karen and five people helped turn her on her back and onto the board - insuring that her head/helmet was supported as we did so.

Again, this was very painful to Karen, and the tech gave her constant reassurance and acknowledged that we had to do it to get her to the ambulance.

Karen's left leg was split open to the extent that no outside skin whatever was visible in this new position - only shredded muscle and bone - over a foot WIDE! A substantial amount of blood and gore was left on the ground where she had lain before being moved. On the other hand, even while on her back and with the injuries in full view, it seemed that there was not very much external bleeding going on at all. Nevertheless, Karen was bleeding heavily - internally.

Elaine, in the meantime was comforting Judy, then she went to Karen's bike and collected all of her personal things from it. She (Elaine) then dealt with the investigating police officer who had arrived shortly after the ambulance. She also talked with the driver of the truck and tried to reassure the man that Karen would be OK. Indeed, she told him that his actions probably saved Karen's life. The man was terribly upset about the accident and was simply unable to approach the vicinity of Karen while we waited for help.

Karen was then moved into the ambulance where substantial effort was made to ascertain the extent of her injuries and to assist her with her breathing. Karen apparently did not lose consciousness during the entire episode.

The life flight helicopter landed in one of the neighbor's yards about fifteen minutes later. After what seemed like a long delay (they were trying to stabilize Karen in the ambulance and had to help her breath as her left lung was punctured), she was carried across the street and into the helicopter. It immediately took off and went to Hermann hospital with her. The accident took place at 3:30 and she was in the air on her way to Hermann Hospital by 4:10.

Though still in shock herself, Judy agreed that she was confident enough and willing to remount my motorcycle as passenger for the trip back to my house where we would make arrangements. Elaine then took the lead and we drove the 70 miles or so to get to my home. Both Elaine and I worked our way back to being fully in control before we did this - a period of 30 minutes of talking, thanking all those that had helped, getting phone numbers of the neighbors, and collecting Karen's personal effects. We were in control, but far from being unaffected by what had just happened, so we drove with exceptional
care and caution to my house.

The fact that Karen had been riding with a full face helmet allowed her to survive the accident. We took possession of that helmet in the life flight waiting room at Hermann hospital. It was clear that Karen had ridden, face down, along the asphalt and gravel before coming to a stop. There was a cut over her left eye that her sunglasses caused when they broke, and some bruising at the back of her brain (later found to have been from a prior skiing accident years before), but nothing more was visible other than some mild bleeding coming out of her nose and mouth. The chin part of her helmet was nearly worn thru and there were deep scratches and abrasions on both sides of the helmet where her cheeks were protected. Part of the visor was shattered, but much of it was still attached to the helmet.

At this moment (5:00 am Monday morning) Karen's condition is still critical. We do not yet know if they will be able to save her leg. The operating team noted that there was still a pulse in her lower left leg so there is a chance to save it. We have not yet heard of all the other life threatening injuries she sustained, nor have we determined if there was spinal injury. The best case scenario is that she will be in critical care and ICU for at least four weeks. It is possible that she will not survive at all.

Karen is an active, strong and otherwise healthy woman in her late 40's with lots of spirit. These things may be what make a final difference.

For those of you who agree that we are all 'family', I invite you to donate blood to help Karen out. She is a patient at Hermann Hospital in Houston, Texas and her name is Karen Miller.

This was the first message concerning the accident that I posted in the 'Wings' conference. The following parts of this 'case study' will show you her progress over a six week period as was also documented in that conference.

This first message has already shown you that 'target fixation' is hardly a trivial concern for motorcyclists.
Next part - Condition Updates

A plea for your help