Tuesday, July 10, 2012


Ah, the car horn. Few sounds can trump the annoyance of this boisterous urban noisemaker. All around you, at any hour of the day, countless numbers of motorists pool their efforts together to create an abrasive cacophony of horn honking, filling the streets with a din of sound pollution decidedly appropriate for a world so rude.

People cut loose on their horns for any number of reasons, or sometimes for no discernible reason at all.

I suppose the original and most appropriate use of the car horn is to warn those in your path of the inherent danger of your vehicle barreling toward them. Considering the droves of highly distracted people of all ages that bumble through the streets completely oblivious to the world around them on a daily basis, for this function of the car horn remains very relevant and useful.

More commonly, people use the horn for getting someone's attention for other reasons. For this purpose, it is possible the horn is overused.

People honk if they see someone in the street that they know. They will honk if they do not care for another motorist's driving style, sometimes excessively. Some people honk compulsively when the light turns green and there are other cars in front of them. People honk if they drive by something they like. Cars even automatically honk to confirm that the motorist has successfully employed the remote locking mechanism dangling from their key chain.

Unfortunately, with all these different motivations for honking it's not always easy to tell why someone is sounding their horn. People will pound the life right out of their steering wheels with the passion of their honking, as if their meaning is obvious, with no clue in their mind as to why their message is not getting through.

I have even seen a person honking accidentally. A man waiting at a traffic light was honking his horn erroneously at the car in front of him. He misinterpreted a change in the traffic light and thought it was their turn to go. There he was blasting away at the horn to display his impatience, when really it was only a green arrow that lit up and he still had a red light.

Soon he realized his mistake. He realized, presumably embarrassed, that he was honking for no reason. He held up a hand and mouthed the word "sorry" (or maybe he said it out loud; I wouldn't know). The other car's response? They honked at him.

For many motorists, honking the car horn serves as a complete substitution for talking. Any and all messages or exclamations for other road users are reduced to the same monotone blast of sound.

With only a single note, however, it is difficult to create a message with any meaning more complex than "look at me."

That is what I imagine the car horn saying, because that's what you have to do in order to respond to a car honking. You have to look at it, and try to guess why the motorist is honking. Sometimes it may be obvious, but other times not so much.

Imagine if we communicated this way in our normal lives? We would all run around communicating exclusively by grunting loudly at one another, slightly baffled by the fact that other people can't seem to decipher the meaning behind our grunts.

Because of the overuse of car horns in a typical urban setting, the sound of a horn blasting doesn't really mean much anymore.

People don't even look to see why a motorist is honking sometimes, because who cares? It's probably just another rage addled psycho announcing to the world that he saw the light turn green first. First! First! First! Fiiiiiiirst!

Why has this model never been improved upon? People have been making cars for two hundred years or whatever, but still no one has come up with a multi-tonal car horn to convey different meanings in traffic, or thought to add some other secondary noise-making device, or really tried to improve the inter-car communication at all.

Today's technology could easily support a more sophisticated system. Wireless inter-vehicle communication hardly seems unrealistic.

Imagine if you could point to the car in front of you and say, "I am changing lanes to pass you on the left," and they could hear you. Being able to actually communicate with other motorists could easily make driving safer in many situations.

You might say, "Oh, but people would harass other motorists and say rude things to them from their cars." While this may be true, I think it's worth pointing out that people already do this.

I see people shouting at each other from their open car windows all the time, rage-laced profanity spewing out their mouths as loudly as they can scream.

With some sort of inter-car communication system, at least these angry outbursts would be confined to the insides of people's cars.That would at least spare the rest of the world from their derogatory noise pollution.

At the very least, I think it would be nice if car horns could produce a few other sounds. People could use the less obnoxious sounds for situations like seeing their friends across the street, or announcing their arrival at someone's house for that day's carpool.
I imagine a french horn belting out a couple nice notes, but I suppose it could sound like pretty much anything and it would likely be an improvement.

Imagine if there were a bell you could sound from your car to as you approached an intersection or crosswalk to acknowledge that you realize another person has the right of way and they may proceed through the intersection knowing you will slow down for them, and people universally came to learn that that is what the bell means. It would be useful; instead of a horn that could actually mean pretty much anything, it would be a universally recognized signal.

I am not saying every message you would ever want to convey in traffic should get it's own sound effect. I'm saying I think it's crazy that a hundred years after the Model T, cars don't even have a couple sound effects (besides of course the loud annoying one).

Ambulances, fire engines, and police cars all have sirens, of course. The sirens all sound different from each other, too.

Large trucks, construction vehicles, and buses make that beeping noise when they are backing up.

Many truckers use CB radio to communicate with other road users.

That trolly bus thing that does tours of Boston has a pretty giant bell on it, although they seem to just sort of ring it randomly, with no real message aside from "check out this old-timey bell!".

I guess some models of car do that cheeping noise instead of honking when you remotely lock them, but that's about it--nothing for the everyday motorist to use for communicating aside from the abrasive blaring of the horn.

 You may attempt to lend some relevance to your horn blast by tapping out a cadence or laying on the horn with variable degrees of force, but I really think someone should have come up with a little more by now.

Oh well, I'm sure it's not long now till everyone gets smartphones installed directly into their brains.

We'll just download an app to communicate telepathically with anyone nearby, effectively serving as the inter-car communication that is so sorely lacking from today's car horn.

Until then, I guess I'll just strap as many different horns and bells onto my handlebars as I can fit and rove about enthusiastically hammering out a codified cadence of messages for other road users, shouting verbal translations for all of the bell-horn combinations until my system catches on and is universally adopted in all vehicles.

1 comment:

  1. Jeremy, your post brings back many memories. When I moved from Mass (the greater Boston area) to Sanford, ME I went from using my horn fairly regularly (you're right, "Because of the overuse of car horns in a typical urban setting, the sound of a horn blasting doesn't really mean much anymore," to hardly ever, almost never using it! When I do, which is literally maybe once a year, it sounds loud, harsh, offensive and overbearing. If you ever want to get away from the horns, you and Cilla are welcome to move up here anytime :)