Honk if You Know Why You’re Honking

The car horn is beeping useless.

My mom is not much of a honker. You know what I mean when I say that: If a driver in front of her fails to hit the gas when the light turns, she simply waits. Time passes, and the green light glows. Eventually, the driver notices the signal change, or the cars behind begin to lay on their horns. Traffic proceeds. But no thanks to my mom; she’s just not much of a honker.

For years I’ve been telling my mom that she ought to learn to honk a little more. After all, honking is a venerable automotive tradition. Just over a century ago, Henry Ford’s first Model T rolled off the production line. Inside, near the driver’s side window, was a grapefruit-sized squeeze bulb affixed to a twice-looped brass trumpet. It was a horn—one of only a few basic amenities that came standard. Thus, the car that “put the world on wheels” also gave the world a way to complain about it: a horn for the great honking masses.

And honk we have. No one keeps official tallies, but with nearly 1 billion cars on the roads, there is no doubt that worldwide honking is on the rise. In dense cities in places like India and China, where hordes of new drivers are now navigating ancient tenement districts, horn-honking is so constant that it is a major noise problem. In July, traffic police in Mumbai launched a “No Honking Movement” led by taxi drivers who took an oath not to toot. Last year, Shanghai banned honking downtown, with the prohibition set to expand to the entire city. Dhaka is a riot of honking. Cairo is the unofficial honking capital of the world. Islamabad, Ho Chi Minh City, Lima, Katmandu, Accra, and New York have issues. Even the virtual world is getting into the act.

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. A Londoner argued this case in a 1912 letter to the Times: “Drivers have escaped punishment because they hooted loudly just before killing an aged and deaf colonel, or an elderly woman, deaf, and blind of one eye, or capsizing another car and injuring three or four persons … Ordinary care and precaution would have prevented each of such accidents. Hooting, however, is counted a sufficient set-off against the lack of such care and precaution.”

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. A New York Times article from the same year documented new horn restrictions in Rome, Stockholm, Vienna, and Berlin, under the headline, “Honking Autoist a World Problem; Every Nation Seeks to Curb Him; Horns Viewed as Contributing Cause of Accidents Rather Than Aid to Safety—Campaign On Here to Curb Drivers Who Depend on Blasts Instead of Brakes.”

This assessment of the horn—that it is not in fact an instrument of safety but something else entirely—has not been refuted. Most honking research has examined the relationship between horn use and aggression. People honk more when it’s hot than when it’s cold, more on weekdays than on weekends, more if they are male than if they are female, more at beaters than at Benzes, more if they feel they can do so anonymously (PDF), and more in the city than in the country. My mother is a classic nonhonker: She is female, suburban, patient, and climate-control-oriented. Still, it would be nice to know whether her anti-honk bias poses a risk to society. A spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Jose Ucles, could not point to any studies on safety and the car horn. “It’s sort of like brakes,” he said. “Everyone’s just always thought it was a good idea.”

Jeff Muttart, a traffic-accident reconstructionist, has pored over hundreds of surveillance videos of real-life car crashes and near-crashes. In 2005, he concluded that emergency horn use is not associated with decreased accident involvement. He found that drivers never steered and honked at the same time, and usually they didn’t honk at all. About half of emergency honks were meant to chastise and came only after the danger was over. The other half were just preludes to a crash. “It really didn’t serve any purpose at all. It was just, Hey, by the way, I’m going to hit you.”

Also: We stink at honking. A 2001 survey for the U.K. Institute of Traffic Accident Investigators shows that most people take two to three times as long to honk as they do to brake or steer. Professional drivers, like cabbies, are a bit quicker—they practice. (Now that automakers are getting over the whole tiny-horn-buttons craze, honk times may improve.)

Muttart explains this honking deficiency by the fact that many people view the horn as a tool for scolding rather than safety. So when we want to avoid a crash, we don’t think to use it. (You don’t look for a phone when you need a fire extinguisher.) It’s possible honk speeds are better in India, where no one overlooks the horn, and the honking is more existential than aggressive. Of course, the street noise there can be literally deafening, and India’s roads have one of the highest death rates in the world.

Perhaps the world just needs more standardized honking education. Here are some tips from AAA on how to use the horn to warn a child cyclist: “Ideally, you should sound the horn when you’re about a half-block away … If you blast the horn at close range, you’ll startle the cyclist. He may look over his left shoulder in surprise and steer inadvertently into your path. Worse, he may lose control and fall directly in front of you.”

In other words: If you see a kid on a bike and he’s at least a half-block away (the block being the standard unit of distance used by AAA’s honking scientists), then give a toot. But take care: If you screw up, you may crush his tiny body beneath your wheels. This kind of messaging hardly helps: Instead of teaching us good behavior, it makes us afraid of the horn and takes the joy out of honking.

The truth is, many cities have already ruled out all the lighthearted, benign uses of the horn—rolling up to a girlfriend’s house with a cool beep-beep, practicing Morse code in the grocery store parking lot … S-O-SSaaaaave Ouuuur Shiiiiip! Even honking to celebrate Obama can get you a ticket. All that’s left now are the aforementioned and ineffective “emergency” hoots. If that’s the case, maybe we should eliminate honking altogether.

In Berlin in 1936, the Nazis put yellow spots on the cars of people who honked unnecessarily. The honking ceased. Memphis in the 1950s was called “the quietest city” thanks to a tough horn law. But horn bans are hard to enforce and maintain. In Cairo, drivers outmaneuvered an ordinance by reverting to squeeze horns. Shanghai’s ban last year reportedly inspired one driver to install a custom horn that played a recording: “Please mind the car, we are making a turn.” New Yorkers honk unflinchingly in the face of the city’s many silly “Don’t Honk” signs. Hey, man, free speech!

New weapons are joining the War on Honking. The Automobile Horn Audit System could track honk rate and location and transmit data to a state-run central computer. Australia is deploying “noise cameras.” And in a nod to the Nazis, some Manhattanites want to fit cabs with lights to identify deviant honkers. Others say, Let’s turn up the honk volume inside cars. The boors among us prefer eggs, or Taliban-style hand dismemberment. A more modest proposal, made by psychologist Charles Spence, is to replace the horn with a sharp spike protruding from the steering wheel. The spike would make driving “feel more dangerous,” so people would go slower.

Last summer I was in Colombia on vacation, and one day I visited downtown Medellin. I was sporting sunglasses, short pants, and dirty white flip-flops. Near the Botero sculpture garden, after checking my map, I stepped into the road. A spray of honks ensued. Cars and motorbikes buzzed past. I felt as if I’d been Tased. But I was alive: a well-timed honk had saved my life.

Or maybe it hadn’t. It felt like a near-miss, but the driver had seen me several seconds earlier, in time to honk me out of the way. Maybe he didn’t even need to honk. Maybe he could have braked instead. That’s what my mom would have done. Or what if his car had been equipped with the spike?

Horns don’t honk at people. People honk at people. Whatever legislative remedies or gadgeteer fixes we can invent, I’m counting on one fact: We won’t give up our horns until they’re pried from our cold, dead, honking hands.