Horns, What Are They Good For?

honking.jpgDo we really need the old "danger" exception?

Lots of forehead-slapping absurdity in this Slate piece by Dave Johns on the history of the car horn. Like many car culture foibles, horn-honking has a long tradition of intractable drawbacks that outweigh any supposed benefits:

In theory, the horn is a safety device; it might rightly be called the world’s first "collision-avoidance system." But exactly how many collisions it serves to avoid has never been clear. From its earliest days, some observers wondered whether the horn wasn’t actually facilitating certain road mishaps by shifting the burden of evasion from the honker to the honkee…

By the 1930s, this judgment was gaining converts. First Paris and then London outlawed horn-honking at night. In 1935, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia kicked off a nighttime honking ban with a radio address in which he praised the English anti-horn effort: "The results have been so good that there is no demand from any quarter for their return. Automobile accidents, fatalities, and injuries have been reduced to an appreciable extent merely because the campaign against horns there has caused drivers to drive more carefully." He said deaths were down 17 percent and injuries 7 percent since the ban had taken effect.

In related news, aggressively venting frustration does nothing to relieve chronic gridlock.

  • Bob

    I’ve often thought horns should be replaced with the “meep meep” noise you hear in cartoons… which sounds very happy and would be ineffective in expressing driver’s rage.

  • Ace

    Have the horn sound as loud inside the car as on the outside.

  • I’ve on occasion been the target of honking while changing lanes and failing to observe another vehicle in my blind spot (poor driving, yes; I’ve greatly improved with maturity, though), and have used my horn on occasion to warn someone who’s drifting into my lane.

    However, it has frequently struck me, especially around New York, that while my instinct is always to brake first, then honk as a “hey, I’m over here” kind of heads-up, most drivers will honk first, then flip the bird, then yell obscenities, and then, only as a very last resort, perform any form of defensive maneuver.

  • James

    Something in New York’s culture makes horn use the option of first resort among motorists. You don’t see it to nearly the same degree in other major US cities. A little gridlock turns adults in automobiles into 4 year olds throwing a tantrum because their Power Wheels ran out of batteries. I often find it comical when I’m out on the bike and snake between a long queue of cars waiting at a light, horns blaring as if the magic Congestion Fairy is going to come and make everything okay for you if you lean on the horn long enough. It’s an infantile mentality at work and makes you wonder where all the adults have gone when it happens, which is all too often.

  • They certainly can be a nuisance in the city, but I’ve seen a few highway collisions averted by their use.

    I kind of like Ace’s idea though.

  • W. K. Lis

    I always thought the ding-ding of the streetcar bell was more gentle and welcome sound. The reason behind the streetcar bell was to announce the presence of the streetcar against the traffic noise. The streetcar was almost too silent on the streets, in comparison with the bus with its loud diesel engine roar as a bus accelerates.

  • Ace is right on the money. An ‘Emergency Signaling Device’ should sound in the cabin as well.

    As it is now, it serves as an outlet for frustration. A stress ball if you will.

    Beep — No brakes!
    Beep — Hurry up!
    Beep — Green light!
    Beep — Slow down!
    And my favorite: Beep — I’m here, c’mon down!

  • ddartley

    What’s especially detestable about honking is that it reaches (and harms) everyone except the honker’s actual target, usually:

    Most often the “honkee” is inside a car. That means they hear the honking fairly gently. Everyone around, however–nearby residents, the dozens of pedestrians, gets blasted by it (and they’ve been getting louder in recent years), and it genuinely affects people physiologically. It is a form of assault, no doubt about it.

    I sometimes daydream about renting a car, and after observing some egregious honker, following him to his home in the suburbs, and leaning on my horn outside of his house, and paying any summons the local authorities issue me, as an act of cd. Point out how it’s okay to do it to my home, and my neighborhood, but it’s not okay in the suburbs?

  • Mike

    This is a good movie about Noise

  • gecko

    A serious topic that is long overdue.

    If a piece of machinery requires such an aggressive warning device one can only wonder about the suitability of the machinery in such an environment amongst all types of people including children and the elderly and what other types of protections and interventions might be more appropriate.

  • Great point, Guido. In an age where most every livery driver carries a cell phone, why is it that they all honk instead of calling the passenger they’re picking up? Pardon the analogy, but it’s a bit like target shooting with a shotgun.

    Instead of writing tickets to cyclists who are just following the signs, how about some tickets for car-service drivers who are violating the law against non-emergency honking?

  • Car horns now, and have been for a long time, a means for a motorist to vent anger or frustration. I’ve driven with people (and it’s both women and men) who, were it not for a car horn to lean on, would pick up a baseball bat or whatever they had under the seat and bash in the windshield (or worse) of the offending party in front of them (who was likely doing nothing worse than driving too slowly for their taste, or failing to make like Indy 500 Start Your Engines when the stoplight went green.)


  • I was in Pittsburgh in March 2007 for a few days. I never — not once — heard a motorist use his horn. Why, you could wait a full second or two when the light turned green without punishment. If you were on foot, you could cross at the green without hustling.

    I’m accused now and then when I comment on other blogs that I want a 19th century, more genteel, slower-paced city, that ain’t gonna happen. Maybe I want something more like Pittsburgh.


  • Michael Steiner

    Another proposal on combating honking: What about making honking conditional on de-acceleration/breaking? I cannot see any safety situation where honking would not require also slowing down and the sensor technology is so cheap that price should not be an issue… Not that it would remove all honking but at least curb a fair amount (and might even trigger people to slow down when there is a safety situation, something appearently lots of people don’t do)

  • Ian Turner

    Sometimes it is appropriate to honk when stationary (as to alert an oncoming car) or while accelerating (as to alert someone entering your lane from behind).

    I really like Ace’s proposal, however.

  • rex

    Horns are a relic. A relic from a time when cars traveled slow enough that people could actually get out of the way before they were mowed down.

    Perhaps what we need is a horn tax? Every time a driver honks his horn, an RFID device signals the DMV and the driver account debited $10. The revenue could be the MTA’d savior.

  • As someone who grew up in the suburbs I can’t say I’m totally against honking. It serves two purposes where I live. The first is to warn for danger–I do it when someone is drifting into my lane and you can visibly see them come to their sense and stop drifting in tune with the sound–I saw a truck do it when he couldn’t stop in time for an intersection (50mph zone, bad weather) and he blew it all the way through the intersection which probably saved a life or two in case someone hadn’t been looking. The second reason is I think the horn makes people realize what they’ve done. I’ve occassionally blown my horn after someone almost hit me and you can often see on their face the realization of what they’ve done only when they hear the horn. The horn is a social consequence of someone telling you you’ve been naughty where I lived and I think it can change behavior and make people pay more attention when people know they deserve it. I don’t think it has that mean in NYC. Obviously the second should be used with care and only in extreme circumstances. But, at least because of the first I don’t think you can/should outlaw horns from cars.

    So, what can you do? I think horns should be attached to lights. Your emergency flashers should go off for X number of seconds automatically when you hit your horn. This has two obvious payoffs. The first is if it is an emergency (especially at night) cars will be able to see which should help to avoid the accident. The second one is more important for NYC. The police can see who has honked their horn in the last X seconds and can give out tickets accordingly. All it takes is some traffic cops in an intersection and they can see who has been honking–so you can’t get out of a ticket by questioning the hearing of the cop. It would make enforcement easier and maybe change the culture. Or so I’d hope…

  • James

    So people, what are we all going to about this? We’ve all vented/bitched in typical Streetsblog fashion, and this entry will soon scroll down and off the page, out of sight and eventually forgotten. The horn abuse will still be taking place and nothing will have been accomplished. What kinds of concrete steps can we take? I’m applying to join my community board with the objective of making some type of impact on this and other related issues. There have to be some other avenues through which to attack the problem as well. Thoughts?

  • Ian Turner

    Only the federal government has the power to make rules such as those proposed by Art or Fritz above. I have a hard time imagining such things clearing either house of Congress.

    The city is in a position to enforce existing honking laws through the NYPD, but I think even people here would agree that there are other issues with greater needs. At the moment traffic enforcement of all kinds is nearly nil: Drivers must engage in the most egregious of behaviors to receive any enforcement action whatsoever.

  • poncho

    WK lis, good point about the streetcar bell, its too bad cars dont have it for warning/”notice me” alerts

    although i think a bigger issue than horns is car alarms. can we make it legal to throw things at cars when the car alarm goes off accidentially (which is 99.9% of the time)?


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