Forty years ago, my wife and I and our two young children embarked on a three week trip to New Zealand. We rented a small camper van and drove everywhere, amazed not just by the number of sheep, forests, rivers and snow-crowned mountains, but the steady temperament of the population. The vibe was 1950s America and everyone was middle-class. The locals never seemed in a rush. No one got upset or angry. Copacetic was the status quo. The only person I heard ever using his horn—I swear this to be true—was me.
I remember that moment well, making a right turn behind a car I judged to be too slow. I honked without thinking, from an impatience bred in urban America, I imagine. It was just a brief brassy stab, but it seemed to hang in the air for a while. Quizzical looks darted my way from nearby drivers, pedestrians, even shopkeepers, as if something was wrong. Had there been a collision, a heart attack in our family, or was my camper van in trouble? None of the above, or course. I felt like getting out of my vehicle and apologizing to everyone. Instead, embarrassed, I kept my eyes on the road and left that city, tail between my legs. I never honked for the rest of our trip.
The New Zealanders had it right. Gratuitous honking should be unacceptable. Absolutely, use your horn if an accident seems imminent, or maybe a warning to an erratic or possibly drunk driver. Otherwise, I don’t know anybody who doesn’t flinch when someone blares in his horn at them for no good reason. At the risk sounding like a driver’s ed teacher, one’s horn should not be a musical instrument, nor an emotional outlet, nor a signal that you’re late for something and you’re blaming others for slowing you down. Driving your car within ten feet of another’s bumper, blinking your lights madly until the driver change lanes, is telling the world that either you’re on drugs, have a very bad temper, or your stress level is heading to the moon. If you’re totally out of control (road rage, allegedly increasing at seven percent a year, obviously means putting more than your own life in danger), pull over for over coffee.
In a country of approximately 270 million registered vehicles (only China has more), self-control is not a luxury.
When the future eventually becomes the present, and we’re hunkered down in our self-driving vehicles, what happens then to the lowly car horn? Does the computer in my car decide when and where to use it, and how long the duration should be? If I’m in the backseat, can I override the computer if I think it’s way too horn happy? Can I finally be free to customize my horn sound, much like choosing the ring tone on my phone? Until the day comes when self-driving vehicles are truly immune to accidents, something soothing to the ear would be nice. I’m thinking Mozart.
Michael R. French
Michael French is a graduate of Stanford University and Northwestern University. He is a businessman and author who divides his time between Santa Barbara, California, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.