Car horns: life-saving tool or offensive weapon?

Originally posted as A Different Hat, Jan 04 2010, 09:58 AM

Critics of marketing and advertising often accuse us of creating ‘noise’ and
‘clutter’ (unless we tell them about something they want or find useful).

But there is one communications tool which, to my knowledge, has never
been commercialised – but does make a noise. In fact, it exists to make a

It is the horn of your car.

And, for some time, the question I have been asking myself is whether or
not the intrusion, and occasional offence, of the noise made by car horns
is disproportionate to the consumer benefit it generates?

I live in a ‘normal’ London street of ‘normal’ terraced houses. And I have
come to learn what people are saying when they use their car horns. I’ve
got the language.

There is the very early in the morning noise which is two short toot-toots,
just like that. Toot-toot. This is the 5am cab that has come to pick up the
guy with the Porsche three doors down to tell him ‘I am here to take you
to the airport’. Toot-toot. (Getting out of the car and ringing Mr Big’s
doorbell does not seem to be an option).

Ok, I know this is one important guy but, just because he needs to be up
early, do all of us who live nearby have to wake up too?

Then, because my road has been conveniently designed to allow two cars
to only JUST not-be-able to pass each other, one car has to pull in to
allow the oncoming car through. By definition, it tends to be the case that
this situation is more prevailing with the 4×4 status-symbol vehicle than
the smaller, more street-friendly models (some of which are quite smart).

If there is nowhere to pull in, and both cars have committed to the road,
they meet in the middle, realise one of them is going to reverse all the
way back down again, know for a fact that it is the other idiot who should
do this and – just to make their case more compelling – emit the much
angrier, longer and louder ‘tooooot’. This is the ‘I got here first and I ain’t
moving’ message.

It can happen at any time, day or night, and it means that all of us who
live nearby, some of whom might be ill or have had a sleepless night with
a new baby, have to wake up. And then, having been woken up by the
first ‘tooooot’, we get the equally loud responding ‘tooooot’ – leading to a
series of toooooting ripostes of varying length and frequency of response.

Sometimes, one of the drivers gets out of his or her car and shouts loudly
at the other driver through the closed window and, by now, locked door of
the opponent. My theory is that this person is the loser. The physical act
of getting out of the car, the delivery of a voluminous volley of verbal
abuse, the stomping retreat and the loudest possible slamming of the car
door on re-entry is actually the final gesture of submission leading to an
inevitable, angry reversal of that driver’s position.

If this happens in the middle of the day, and you are wide awake, this can
all be quite entertaining and even lead to a shrug and a seen-it-all-before
wave to your neighbour in the house over the road. Oh what fun!

But, if it is in the middle of the day, and you have had a bad night’s sleep
because of that baby again or you are ill or you are jet-lagged Mr Big, this
is a hell of an intrusion and extremely annoying.

Round here, these are just two of the most common uses of the car horn

But, from what I have heard, the absolutely most common use of the car
horn is the one that substitutes those two short words, the second of
which is ‘off’. This is the long, loud ‘TOOOOT-TOOOOT-TOOOOT’.
Someone has pulled out or changed lanes or merely even slowed down to
let someone else in. Clearly, this absolutely deserves the full shot-gun
volley of horny abuse and everyone – resident, pedestrian, mild mannered
pensioner at the bus stop – yes, all of us have to know that one driver is
telling another that he or she is a tooting moron and should toot off.

So why do we have these car horns?

Yes, I know that on country lanes, you need to let someone know you are
approaching a corner. But how often does that happen?

Yes, I know that at town traffic lights, you have to alert the person who
has not noticed the light ahead of you has gone green. But how do you
know they are going to hear you? For all you know, they could be listening
to loud garage music or be on the phone. These days, however loud you
toot, how do you know your noisesome message will be heard?

Until recently, I thought my horn-aversion was a strictly personal foible.

But then, late last year (December 2009), I had to catch one of those Mr
Big early morning flights to a meeting in Vienna. And guess what? As we
approached the centre of this old and beautiful city, we passed a road sign
that had a picture of a bugle-looking thing with a red line across it.

I turned to the cab driver (for it was he) and asked “what does that sign

“It means you cannot use your car horn”, he said.

“What, not at all?” I retorted, amazed and in hope.

“Not in the centre of the City of Vienna”.

Oh joy! Oh wonder! Oh Christmas! Oh the Sound of Music!

So there you go. If they can do it in Vienna, why can’t they do it here?
Shall we launch a Campaign? You can sign up here.

Otherwise, why not join me in my New Year’s Resolution never to use my
horn unless absolutely necessary – and certainly never in anger?


About Hugh Salmon

Business leader. Adman. Writer.
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4 Responses to Car horns: life-saving tool or offensive weapon?

  1. Dick Hughson says:

    This is a great post and may be one that should be followed up to see what are the results

    A neighbor sent this link the other day and I’m excitedly waiting your next piece of writing. Carry on on the first-class work.

  2. Nigel Kelso says:

    Picked up your webblog via google the other day and absolutely liked it so much. Carry on the truly great work.

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