Honk if You Know Why You're Honking
The car horn is beeping useless.
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-S … Saaaaave 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.
David Merritt Johns is a doctoral student in Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.