Why do Northwesterners avoid honking the horn?


By Paula Wissel

If you live in Boston, Manhattan or Mumbai, the sounds of rush hour include the overwhelming sound of beeping and blaring car horns. But, that’s not the case in the Pacific Northwest. Honking the horn just doesn’t seem to be part of our driving DNA.


You’re not in Cleveland Anymore

It’s something Pam Duncan, Director of Community Assessment and Investment with United Way of Pierce County, noticed right away when she moved to Tacoma from Cleveland.

She would be driving on I-5, traffic would be at a standstill, but no one would be honking. The same thing happened on city streets when the light changed from red to green.

“Cars would sit for a second or two or five, someone would be daydreaming and nobody would honk at them. I would honk and people would look at me like what’s wrong with you?” she said.

She laughs and says it’s a different story back in Cleveland.

“As soon as the light turns green, you have a split second and then, beep,” she said.


Is a horn optional?

This Northwest trait of avoiding the horn seemed so odd to Duncan that, she says, “I wondered if the cars that are sold here just didn’t have car horns in them.”


Honk if love getting a ticket

Daniel Dorn, of Portland, Ore., tries to get cars to honk their horns as he protests near an "Occupy" encampment in downtown Seattle Oct. 5, 2011.  AP PhotoEvidence that honking is frowned upon can be seen in the way people who honk are sometimes treated.

During last fall’s Occupy Seattle protests, some motorists who honked in support of the occupiers were ticketed. Cab driver Ayad Agila told KOMO News he was “shocked” by the $144 fine.

Recently, the Washington Supreme Court took up a case that concerned a Snohomish County woman, Helen Immelt, who was arrested, booked and convicted for “sounding a car horn at length in front of a neighbor’s house in the early morning hours.”

Attorney John J. Tollefsen was successful in getting the Supreme Court to overturn the conviction. He argued the Snohomish county ordinance against honking was too broad and would prohibit free speech.

But he says he was surprised prosecutors spent county resources in a three day trial in the first place, going after someone for honking her horn when other cases, such as fraud, don’t get that kind of attention.

“That’s your government at work,” he said.

Washington state law, and many local ordinances prohibit honking for reasons other than public safety.  New York and other cities have similar laws but they don’t appear to be vigorously enforced..


Why don’t we toot our horn?


So, why are we so beeping averse?  Seattle University Associate Professor of Psychology Kathleen Cook says it could be that, unlike large cities on the East Coast or in the Midwest, Seattle’s experience with traffic jams is fairly new by historical standards.

“Chicago, New York and other big cities were already big cities at the advent of cars and impatience and aggression got an early start, “ she said.

So, now that we’ve become more like other big cities, why hasn’t the horn honking followed?

Cook says that’s because we’ve already developed our social norms.

“We just didn’t have the need to develop aggressive behavior so it just isn’t part of our repertoire when it comes to driving,” she said.

And newcomers, she says, rather than changing us are pressured to adapt to our ways.



Mean looks and stares prompt conformity

Pam Duncan, who has lived in Tacoma for ten years, says she stopped honking when she realized it brought dirty looks from people who seemed offended by it.  When I ask her if she’s changed her behavior, she laughs and says,

“Yes, now occasionally I’ll honk and then say, ‘Oops, I’m sorry,’” Duncan says.


Don’t forget the friendly wave

Cook says ‘no honking’ is part of a complex set of social rules that newcomers have to adapt to in the Northwest when it comes to driving.  For example, she says when we let someone cut in front of us in traffic, we expect something in return.

“We get miffed if we don’t get that friendly little thank-you wave,” she said.


Polite is nice

Alex Suarez is head of the clinical psychology program at Antioch University in Seattle. 

She loves the lack of horn honking in Seattle.

Where she grew up, in Mexico City, she once lived next to one of the busiest traffic circles in the world.  She says the noise was awful.

“One time I counted how many times people would blow their horn and it was over 150 times in 5 minutes.  We couldn’t open our windows because we couldn’t hear ourselves talk,” Suarez said.

She thinks we should view Mexico City as a cautionary tale.


How car horns are like peacocks

Laurence & Annie / FlickrTo explain, Suarez uses the term “arrhostia.”

She describes it as a sort of evolutionary one-upsmanship. For example, each male peacock gets showier and showier feathers to attract females, but eventually there are so many feathers that the male peacock can’t escape a predator such as a tiger.

“In a way, an evolutionary way, honking the horn is that kind of thing that might give a short term advantage but in the big picture it’s really bad for our community,” she said.

When I ask Suarez if it means we would be in danger of being eaten by the tiger she says,

“Yes, by the stress.  I think if we produce a lot of noise we know that’s bad for us.  If we feel under a lot of pressure even at a stoplight or something like that, that would not be good for us,” she said.


Does polite equal passive aggressive?

The lack of honking and overly polite, if you can call it that, way of driving does drive some people crazy.  New arrivals to Seattle will sometimes say it’s a “passive aggressive” avoidance of confrontation.

Social scientists don’t use the term. They say the problem with applying it to people who don’t honk is that you don’t really know what their motivation is. They could be fearful of provoking another driver or they could be genuinely trying to be polite.

“It makes me sad to hear people use the term passive-aggressive for what is actual politeness,” said Alex Suarez.


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