Please, think before you honk
Your twenty seconds of venting affects others after you're gone

One of several signs posted in East Flatbush, Brooklyn industrial area.

In 2014, the mother of a noise sensitive child launched a campaign on the Brookln street where impatient drivers honked each morning as her daughter boarded a school bus. She handed out flyers that read Think Before You Honk. Several months later, another parent described angry drivers who honked each morning as his son boarded a school bus, and still more angry drivers who honked each morning as a boy in a wheelchair boarded an ambulette. These stories seemed to beg for some kind of response from elected leaders, something, anything. But the stories faded, folded into the archives of earlier citizen efforts to address horn honking. And like the Think Before You Honk campaign, sudden, spectacular efforts like Honku delight us and attract media attention, only to fade without sparking community action. It's little wonder so many people are resigned about chronic horn noise.

On the Upper East Side, New Yorkers describe hours of chronic, ceaseless honking on a residential street, and six years of overnight honking during bridge renovation, while Queens residents live with chronic, ceaseless honking on a residential street on the other side of the bridge.

In East Flatbush, drivers of commuter vans ("dollar vans") and livery cars ("dollar cabs") cruise streets honking and sounding air horns at pedestrians to solicit fares and as a form of "branding," unaware of the City's celebrated noise code or TLC regulations prohibiting non-emergency honking and fare solicitation. Although the vans are said to alleviate a dearth of buses, it is commonplace to encounter gridlock as buses, dollar vans, and livery cars crawl through intersections along Nostrand, Flatbush, and Utica avenues, every driver honking. "Dollar cabs" also cruise through quiet side streets and narrow arteries, honking at pedestrians. East Flatbush residents are sometimes awakened by a car's first clarion call as a driver "warms up" the air horn on otherwise quiet streets just before dawn.

Is there anything new to say about New York City's horn honking problem? Is it time for everyone to just deal with it, and accept the idea that “cities are noisy”? A more appropriate question is this one: when is enough enough? How is chronic horn honking different from other kinds of "city noise"? And what are other cities doing about it?

1. Not everyone is resigned about traffic noise. Policymakers have succeeded in reducing horn honking in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu with a combination of ticketing and education, while the Traffic Management Bureau in Beijing has implemented a pilot project involving honking detectors. The Reported app is already capable of streamlining the process of reporting any traffic infraction in New York City, but only reports licensed taxis. Taxi drivers are not the only drivers honking! (Reported can transmit positive and negative feedback.) In Canada, an Edmonton councillor also took a coordinated approach involving education and technology to address traffic noise. "One person in one noisy vehicle late at night can disrupt the lives of thousands of Edmontonians," Councillor Scott McKeen said. As with the Reported app and the Beijing approach, McKeen advocates for technology that submits information directly to law enforcement. Hornet Industries currently seeks municipalities interested in test piloting honking detection technology in the United States. The Hornet system submits information directly to law enforcement.
2. Horn honking is a form of aggression. Road rage incidents are commonplace in New York City, and horn honking is often involved. Sometimes honking either precedes an attacker's violence, or incites an attacker to escalate aggression. One attacker began by honking at a young deliveryman, then got out of his car and attacked him with a bat, leaving him in a coma for a week with fifty/fifty chances of survival before he finally recovered. Another attacker began by honking at his victim, then got out of his car and threatened her with a gun. In another incident, a driver responded to being honked at by pulling a gun on the other driver. There is no excuse for becoming violent when someone honks at you, but in road rage incidents honking is capable of inciting violence because people are responding to a form of perceived aggression. 1 2 3 4 5 6
3. Behind the statistics. In early 2011, it was reported that horn honking complaints in New York City were trending downward, with far fewer complaints in 2009 than in 2008. A DEP spokeswoman commented that New Yorkers needed "to realize where they’re living. Don’t forget that this is the city that never sleeps. There will always be noise.” But a noise researcher suggested otherwise, proposing that honking levels were the same, but people had likely realized that complaining "doesn’t get you anywhere." The problem is that with fewer complaints, it's impossible to reach the critical mass needed to convince legislators to take the issue seriously.
4. It gets worse. A Manhattan attorney and activist was told that police avoid ticketing for honking because you have to state in court that you saw the driver's hand on the horn. Multiple traffic officers told a Brooklyn activist that NYPD would not ticket a driver for honking unless a task force was created. When the same activist asked commuter van drivers if they were aware of the New York City noise code, none knew that honking is regulated by a local law, by TLC, and commuter van law, and one van driver insisted non-emergency honking is legal because "the signs were taken down!" Another van driver found the notion absurd: "This is a dollar van!" he said. Very few drivers realized that non-emergency honking is prohibited, and letters, emails, and calls to elected legislators and the TLC commissioner suggesting that professional drivers be educated about the law were ignored.
5. Everyone is somebody's constituent. New Yorkers have City Council, Assembly, and Congress members who represent us and who can advocate on our behalf. Start locally by contacting your City Council member, but don't hesitate to approach another legislator if your Council member is not responsive. Before living in East Flatbush, I lived in a Bronx neighborhood where livery car drivers regularly honked at pedestrians to solicit fares. Not knowing whom to contact, I randomly emailed my Assembly member, and his staff promptly sent letters to livery car companies reminding them that fare solicitation honking is prohibited - based on one emailed request from one constituent. Report chronic, predictable illegal honking using the 311 system and keep track of complaints. Even if your complaints are dismissed, let your legislator know that you submitted complaints using 311. There is strength in numbers, and some New Yorkers have even succeeded in addressing traffic noise issues at the block level using online petitions.
6. Connecting the dots. In New York City, policy decisions about noise are not keeping pace with science, and our culture's framing of even the most aggressive horn honking as a tolerable nuisance forces many to endure chronic stress. It is unrealistic to expect the entire burden of enforcement to fall on NYPD. Without a coordinated effort involving education, technology, social marketing, and creating a means to report chronic predictable aggressive honking through 311 and ensuring cooperative investigation and enforcement, some New Yorkers will always be forced to endure a backdrop of road rage noise as the soundtrack of their lives. Most honking is an expression of anger that everyone is forced to listen to; much of it reaches levels that could reasonably be described as road rage, and some of it incites or escalates to indisputable road rage. Aggressive driving behavior should not be tolerated whether it involves speeding, running red lights, or throwing a tantrum with a horn. On October 31, Councilman David Greenfield of Brooklyn introduced Intro. 1752, which would designate road rage as a crime, and would make it "a Class B misdemeanor to engage in threatening or violent behavior toward the operator or occupants of a vehicle." If this legislation passes into law, will aggressive, punitive horn honking be recognized as the bullying behavior that it is? Or will it continue to be ignored and unenforced as Local Law 113 has been? Will those who are in a position to protect New Yorkers from aggression and bullying and scofflaws ever be able to step back and see the bigger picture, to connect the dots?

It is troubling that in a city like New York, groups of commuters can throw tantrums in their cars, bullying three-year-olds with their horns, and not one legislator steps up and says, "Enough is enough." It is also troubling that so many are forced to listen to hours of horn honking tantrums outside their homes on residential streets while others in the same city are blessed with relative quiet day and night, often due to chance. Would we accept this tantrum throwing behavior standing in line at the supermarket, or the bank? No way. Why is it acceptable to bully others while sitting in a vehicle?

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A voice for those who will not or cannot speak
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