When self-expression has been reduced to 140 characters, the stray honk of a car horn can seem like just another form of reflex communication. And just like Twitter, honking can be annoying, mindless, a nuisance, and even illegal.
The company 76 Branded Fuels has a new ad campaign fashioned as a public service announcement against what they are calling "honkaholism". The gas retailer's site, stophonkaholism.com, describes honkaholism as "an epidemic that causes drivers to honk incessantly and often unnecessarily." Visitors to the site can take a test to see if they suffer from honkaholism, and stage a "honkervention" for those in denial. They can even order a Honk Suppressor which emits a dog-toy-like squeak to replace the blare of an overused horn.
Though only available in California, Oregon and Washington State, the campaign has drawn over 60,000 requests for Honk Suppresors. Which begs the question, when is it appropriate to actually honk the horn?
Almost all states and some municipalities have laws meant to control honking, specifying that a horn can only be sounded to prevent a collision with other road users. Honking for the fun of it or as retribution can land a driver with hefty fines and points on their licenses. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is in agreement with states, citing studies that honking leads to aggressive behavior in drivers.
That means it is illegal to honk a horn to pick up a date or, if you are in Louisville, Ken., to have driven around town honking in celebration of the University of Louisville's victory over Michigan in the NCAA Basketball finals this week.
"We generally give the same advice to our new and old drivers" said Dr. William E. Van Tassel, AAA Manager, Driver Training Operation. "Only use your horn to let another road user know you are approaching, such as a bicyclist on a relatively empty road, to stop another driver from impeding into your space and to notify another road user of upcoming road conditions." Van Taseel stressed that honks should be "short and friendly, perhaps accompanied by a wave" to avoid irritating fellow drivers.
While honking should only be used to prevent accidents or alert road users, some drivers have challenged laws that restrict their use. In New York, where honking is a citywide pastime, signs reading 'Don't Honk' were removed in an effort to remove the clutter of often ignored street signs. While unnecessary use of a horn is still illegal in the city, and carries a $350 penalty, tickets are rarely issued. Only 206 summonses were issued for excessive horn use in 2012.
The Honk Suppressor isn't needed in Washington State either, where residents can count honking as protected free speech. In 2011, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that honking was protected speech and overturned a woman's ticket for excessive honking outside of a neighbor's home as a tactic in an ongoing feud. When honkers sound their support for Occupy Wall Street protesters many saw the ensuing tickets as retribution for supporting unpopular political ideas and had their tickets thrown out of court on First Amendment basis.