When to Honk

“I think we should only get 3 honks a month on the car horn, because people honk the car horn too much. 3 honks, that’s the limit. And then someone cuts you off, ffffft, you press your horn, nothing happens. You’re like, “shit! I wish I wouldn’t have seen Ricky on the sidewalk!”
-Mitch Hedberg

We have posted about traffic and driving etiquette before and, clearly, we don’t plan to end this trend. Honking, like tipping, is an inexact science: Some people are more liberal honkers whereas others show more restraint. Below is my own common-sense guide to honking:

Appropriate Uses of the Honk:

To prevent a car from merging INTO your car. If you have ever driven on a highway, you know what I’m talking about. A car puts its blinker on, you are in the adjacent lane slightly in the back of the car (presumably in the car’s blindspot), and they start to change lanes without considering you and your vehicle. A honk as a preventative measure is not only appropriate but necessary in this type of situation for the sake of preventing a collision.

If you are a truck driver and want to please a child under the age of nine. There’s a school bus full of children and they incessantly move their right arms up-and-down-with-fist-clenched urging the truck driver to honk. Given the ease of honking, the amount of pleasure this gives most children (“We caused him to honk his horn, all by ourselves!”), and the ability to cease the annoying repetition of the honking signal, it is certainly appropriate for the truck driver to perform a little for the children. Nonetheless, at a certain point, calling for truck drivers to honk is an embarrassing sign of immaturity. I arbitrarily pick the age of nine as this time.

To get a stationary animal (or person) out of the way of your car. If a cat is lying down or a person decides to set up a food stand (or some variant) in front of your car, employing the honk is appropriate. It’s concise and potentially avoids verbal confrontation.

Inappropriate Uses of the Honk:

To condemn the bad driving of others: This is probably the most popular use of the honk. Someone cuts you off and you honk them ex-post to signal your disapproval of their bad behavior. While the ex-ante honk may have been appropriate, the ex-post honk isn’t. What does the honk do? It certainly doesn’t change the behavior of the driver. It may cause other drivers to think that they are in the wrong, and it causes unnecessary noise. Generally, people who cut you off either A) didn’t intend to or B) do it out of habit and are unlikely to change their habit due to your honking.

To condemn traffic: Tim has already established that “traffic may be the most singularly hated affliction in civilization.” No need for you to rehash this by making an unpleasant situation even more unpleasant. If we act every day by the logic of honking during traffic, we should carry a buzzer on long lines at the grocery store and buzz it whenever the line is sufficiently long to displease us. In fact, since traffic is so unpleasant, it makes sense to counteract this experience and try to produce some sort of public good rather than a negative externality. If you have a great voice, sing a song. If you’re an accomplished philosopher, offer up a lecture on justice. If you don’t want to benefit from these public goods, just listen to the radio.

If you see someone you know: If traffic is slow-paced enough and you actually want to talk to them, you can actually stop and say hello to your friend. If traffic is too high-paced, you won’t be able to say anything to them anyway, so you might as well just let them know you saw them on the road after you’re finished driving, rather than startling them and other drivers.

4 responses to this post.

  1. I will offer a lecture on justice to my fellow traffic-mates the next time I’m stuck. I’ll let you know how it goes.

    What do you say, by the way, about honking to get the driver in front of you to realize that the light is green?


  2. Posted by Josh on August 15, 2009 at 12:57 PM

    Yes, that’s fair game, after 5 seconds. Overzealous honkers that honk the second it turns green are ridiculous though.


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