Driver honking a car horn. (Corbis)

New York City is known as the city that never sleeps, but a lot of us don’t sleep because there’s a guy leaning on the horn of his car on the street below our windows.

It doesn't matter if it's 3:00 AM or that your next-door neighbors have infants, or that there are enormous signs posted reading, "Don't Honk: $350 Fine."

For many drivers in New York and other crowded urban American areas, the response to the slightest inconvenience is the horn, loud and long. It may seem as if this is the way it has to be, too -- give someone a horn and they’ll honk it. But it hasn’t always been like this.

An Innocent Past

It actually took decades for the car horn to become the oppressive sonic bazooka we know it as today.

Automobile warning devices in the late 19th century comprised quaint bells, whistles and rubber-bulb squeakers. As cars grew faster and became ubiquitous, a stronger horn was needed. One was the Gabriel, a multi-toned exhaust horn popular in the 1910s and ’20s, but which eventually faded in popularity in favor of the Klaxon, whose sound arrived via an electric vibrating metal diaphragm and emitted the popular, familiar and goofy “ah-oo-ga."

Automakers eventually settled on a single-tone electric horn, usually tuned to an E-flat or C. Dual-tone horns were found to pierce through traffic noise more effectively by the 1960s, and the tones themselves went up to a shriller F-sharp and A-sharp. At the same time, auto cockpits began to grow increasingly quieter, due to consumer demand. Today, it’s tough for a driver with windows closed and music on to even hear an emergency vehicle siren, let alone a prolonged horn blast.

Mine Is Louder Than Yours

It’s no secret then that drivers like their own horns to be nice and loud. Miles C. Johnson, Manager of Product Public Relations at Hyundai, said that during a recent press launch of the company’s all-new Sonata, there were overwhelming complaints about the car’s wimpy horn. “Within a week,” he told AOL Autos, “Hyundai replaced the hardware with a more appropriate dual-shell unit that gives the car a louder presence when the owner needs to use the horn.”

But is it really necessary to freak out and lay on the horn if the guy in front of you doesn't smash the gas pedal and lay down a patch of rubber the second a light turns green? It seems that most horn use these days isn’t driven by need, for warning other drivers or pedestrians, but by anger and impatience.

“It’s frustration,” says Dr. Arline Bronzaft, an environmental psychologist who chairs the Noise Committee on the Environment of New York City. “Nothing moves if you’re stuck at the back end of a line of cars and you honk your horn. Rationally, we know this. But are people rational beings? No, they’re emotional. So they blow off steam and in that moment of anger, they don’t think about the people they’re causing pain to.”

Some drivers, likely the same ones who see nothing wrong with using their horns to express their every perturbation, may balk at that last point. Pain, really? Yes. “Loud noises are not just a minor annoyance. Noise affects quality of life. It affects your health and your blood pressure,” says Brozaft. “It makes people angry.”

Around The Globe

But the horn isn’t such a problem elsewhere. Overuse of the horn seems to be a distinctly American phenomenon, as I can attest from personal experience.

When I lived in Pune, India, for five months some years ago, for example, I noticed most of the cement trucks had a rubber bulb horn mounted on the outside of the driver's window, and that drivers used it only to get someone's attention or to announce a delivery. If a cow decided to march into the middle of traffic and lie down for an hour, there the traffic stayed without so much as a toot from anyone in a car.

When I spent three months in Bali a few years later, traffic jams were plentiful, but horns weren't blown. It just wasn’t done; people didn’t have tantrums over what was happening outside their vehicles.

When I visited Paris last year, I noticed most cab drivers would flash their headlights to urge drivers in front them to snap alert instead of honking.

What To Do?

If there’s a lesson to be learned from the rest of the world, it’s that we don’t have to settle for living in a society in which overuse of the horn is okay. It starts with training new drivers that the horn is supposed to be used only in an emergency.

But at the core of the problem is the larger issue of respecting others – something increasingly hard to find in our society.

“It doesn’t take a lot of brains,” says Bronzaft. “It’s a matter of decency. How do we instill that in people? If I’m really concerned about other people, would I lean on the horn at 2:00 AM? So much of this is about respect and courtesy.”

Bronzaft has some ideas for a technological solution: “Why not a horn you can restrict? If you hit the horn, say, two to three times, then it quits. Or design a mechanism whereby when you put your hand down for any length of time, the horn simply stops. And then it won’t go on again for a period of time. At least let’s stop the horns from continuous, unrelenting blasts.”

Until an adventurous automaker takes her up on her idea, or our society rediscovers common courtesy, we’re left with little recourse. Even the fines that are on the books in New York City don’t seem to be doing much good. Just 580 tickets were written for "unnecessary use of horn," in 2006, about one and a half a day, on average, for the whole city of over eight million. And that’s nothing to toot your horn about.

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