Spoof of mining industry's ad campaign (H/T Daniel Bowen)

I saw a driver scare the bejeezus out of two cyclists this morning by driving up close and giving them a long, loud blast with his car’s horn. This wasn’t a toot; it was a sustained, high-power burst at pointblank range.

What probably provoked the ‘attack’ is the cyclists were riding in tandem side-by-side. The driver had ample room to overtake them and there were no other cars in sight on this quiet suburban street, but he chose to use his horn as a weapon, presumably to let them know their behaviour, or their very existence, was contemptible to him.

I really wonder if there’s any warrant for cars to have horns anymore (assuming there ever was). I wonder if all that noise pollution and aural warfare is justified by the benefits horn’s ostensibly provide.

The only value I can see in a horn is to warn others when there’s no other practical way of avoiding serious trouble, like a potential collision. The reality of course is horns are used in Australia for all sorts of non-essential purposes.

In many countries, like Indonesia, Vietnam and Italy, constant tooting is just a routine part of driving like accelerating and braking. It’s another situational awareness tool, intended to let everybody know where everybody else is – like a crude transponder. Whether it actually works anymore with so many vehicles on the roads is a moot point.

We don’t do that in Australia; we mostly use horns for darker purposes. A primary one is to punish others for doing the ‘wrong’ thing. Sometimes it’s the ‘Easy Rider’ syndrome (like I saw this morning), but most times drivers blast away to punish someone who they believe didn’t observe proper road etiquette.

This sort of discharge invariably happens after the provocation, so it has nothing to do with avoiding an incident. The horn is being sounded to rebuke, castigate and reprimand. The ritual honking is often accompanied by the driver screaming something like “fcuking dickhead!”

Another purpose is to warn others to get out of the way. This is usually more of a polite ‘toot’ than an aggressive ‘honk’. It’s purpose is to maintain the ‘pecking order’ of road users. The driver is saying “I have the right and the might on my side so I’m just politely letting you know I’m here and I expect in the natural order of things that you’ll give way and let me through”.

In almost every case I can think of, however, there’s an alternative to the toot. Rather than use the horn, the driver could simply slow down or stop. For example, if there’re kids playing on the edge of the road, she could simply reduce speed to a pace slow enough to account for any eventuality.

The underlying cause here is the assumption that drivers have priority over other users. The implicit understanding is it’s the responsibility of non-drivers, if duly warned with a beep, to change their behaviour and give way. Most times the driver doesn’t even expect to slow down!

Horns are also used for celebration and acknowledgement. This category of honking includes the neighbour’s drunken guests who toot when they leave at 3 am because a farewell kiss just doesn’t say goodbye like a good honking. Curiously, it also includes the friend or relative you saw last night. On seeing them unexpectedly come into view next morning driving the other way, some mysterious force compels you to toot them, and they you.

I can’t see that any of these horn-using purposes, on balance, come within cooee of providing sufficient benefits to justify the noise pollution they inflict on nearby residents and other road users.

There’re nevertheless some situations where a horn really is the only practical way of avoiding a serious incident. A large, heavy vehicle like a truck, for example, might simply lack the mechanical ability to stop in time if a pedestrian steps into its path. The only option might be for the driver to sound the horn and hope the pedestrian’s got time to jump out of the way.

I suspect, though, that situations where a horn makes the critical difference happen less often than is imagined. Most times when disaster seems imminent drivers are too busy taking evasive action to use the horn, or it would make no difference to the outcome anyway.

It’s worth imagining what a world with de-horned cars would be like. Some objective and well researched data is needed to really understand what might happen, but in its absence I expect we would function better without car horns than with them. The benefits would well and truly outweigh the costs.

Of course it’s highly unlikely politicians would ever ban car horns, but at least they could do a better job of regulating them than they do at present. There might already be laws that limit when and how horns can be used, but if so they aren’t policed and it seems unlikely they ever will be.

One plausible option would be to limit the volume and intensity of horns that can be installed on new and old cars. In essence, allow cars to have horns that ‘beep’ but ban those that ‘honk’. It’s a bit left field but I also like the idea of making horns sound as loud to the occupants within today’s well-insulated cars as they do to the poor unfortunates outside.

It’s tragic that cars are evolving bigger horns (see second exhibit).

Listen to this - it really is a shocker!!