Try to recall the last time you used your car horn. When you happened to see your friend standing on a street corner? When the driver in front of you was idling at a green light, probably texting? Or was it on this morning’s commute, when someone wouldn’t let you merge? I was in San Francisco the night the Warriors became 2017’s NBA champs, and the victory was signaled with fireworks — plus the clamor of manic honking from every last fan on the road.
I myself honk rarely, and a sustained beep is usually intended to express the sentiment “What the fuck are you doing, you fucking asshole?” Not long ago, I visited my home state of New Jersey, where a network of knotty and preposterous highways has produced some of the worst motorists in the nation (I actually find Los Angeles drivers polite!) and had a guy go around me to run a red light. I gave him a solid blast with the horn, but what did I hope for? That this guy would take my criticism to heart and honestly reevaluate his approach to vehicular safety and etiquette?
Forget it, and forget the car horn altogether. That seems to be the pacifist philosophy of Dipak Das, a taxi driver in the Indian city of Kolkata, who is slated to receive an award from the humanitarian group Manush Mela for not honking once in the past 18 years. His spotless record is backed up by celebrity clients, and it reflects a gentle soul, as the Hindustan Times reports:
“‘I think if a driver follows this no-horn policy, he will become more alert while driving. If a driver has proper sense of space, speed and timing, he or she need not use horn,’ Mela says, adding that when passengers ask him to use the horn, he politely tells them that it won’t solve the problem.”
Das’s car carries a placard with the words “Horn is a concept. I care for your heart.”
Excuse me, I am just TEARING UP A BIT over this man’s compassion for other hearts (and ears). It’s genuinely inspiring. And I am completely sold on his theory of the car horn’s essential uselessness. If anything, it is the sound of impotence: You’re annoyed or startled or frustrated, and all you can do is make an unpleasant noise about it. A noise that the other guy can make right back. Eventually, you get crosstown Manhattan traffic snarled by a holiday parade, and dozens of cabbies leaning on their horns like anyone else has or would exercise the option of pulling over to let them through. At best, the horns just inflict your misery on the world at large.
According to the California DMV, we are to honk “only when necessary, to avoid collisions.” I guess a few well-timed beeps may have averted accidents over the long century we’ve been driving, but I’ve never experienced nor heard of such a thing. We may also honk to “get eye contact” with another driver, which sounds like some lame pick-up artist move. Lastly, we are supposed to honk “on narrow mountain roads, where you cannot see at least 200 feet ahead of your vehicle,” which… huh? I’m supposed to just lean on the horn for the entirety of my Lake Tahoe vacation? WHAT ABOUT THE GODDAMN SERENITY OF THE MOUNTAINS, DMV?
History doesn’t make much of an argument for the car horn, either. First developed for steam engines in the early 1800s — that is to say, before street signals were common — it came standard on the Ford Model T. But from that time forward, “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,” according to Slate’s history of the device. Moreover, early efforts to curb honking in congested urban areas coincided with a drop in auto deaths and injuries, indicated that the use of one’s horn was more likely to cause an accident than prevent one.
If we don’t walk around with air horns to blow at one another when agitated by pedestrian grievances, I don’t think we really need car horns for the vanishingly rare cases where they’d do us any good. Hey, maybe we’d rediscover the art of rolling the window down and shouting specific obscenities! Or we might remember how effective a silent middle finger can be in these situations. Or we could fall back on flashing the high beams, an equally futile gesture that is meant to convey any number of disparate messages, including, “Your own headlights are off,” “You seem to have a flat tire,” and, “There’s a knife-wielding maniac clinging to your roof.” Anything would be preferable to pretending that the bleating of a car horn is ever justified.
What I and Dipak Das are ultimately advocating for is a better quality of environment. Let me sing along to my favorite shitty country rock songs in peace, and I’ll let you listen to your whispery boring-ass podcasts about, I don’t know, the architecture of medieval monasteries. We’re all living on top of one another already, trying to shout over the next guy. Don’t start a honking war, because there can be no winners, and indeed no satisfying resolution. To paraphrase an iconic T-shirt worn by Frank Ocean: Why honk when you could just be quiet?
Unless you have one of those horns that plays “La Cucaracha.” Feel free to let that rip.