Big honking deal

You don’t honk.

No, that’s not an order; it’s an observation. You, or at least typical San Francisco Bay Area drivers, are very reticent about honking car horns. That was one of the early analyses I made after moving here a decade ago. I came from New York City, and before that Chicago (and even before that Wisconsin), and in all of those places, drivers honk their horns when someone swerves their car into another’s lane, or walks in front of a car, or does any of 100 things that could result in
damage or death.

Once, while driving down 101, a sedan went zooming across lanes at high speed, looking for every pocket between traffic so he could get to his V.C. meeting/video-game emporium/coke dealer/whatever 12 minutes sooner. He swerved in front of a minivan near me, forcing the minivan driver to slam on her breaks and fight to keep her vehicle in its lane; seconds later, the zoomer zoomed on to another lane and further imagined glory.

But the minivan driver did not honk her horn, despite that fact that she had several young children in the vehicle with her. I still don’t know why she didn’t honk, either to show the zoomer that he was putting other people in possibly grave danger or to let the speeding driver know that he had inadvertently nearly caused a crash and needs to pay more attention. I think parents would be angry if someone put their children in mortal danger, but either this woman had overdosed on I’m-fine-you’re-fine philosophy or those kids weren’t hers anyway so she didn’t care about them.

I’ve seen similar things happen elsewhere here, and it is very rare that I hear a honk following bad driving behavior. I don’t have any fully baked theory, but my half-baked one is that people who grew up in paradise think they’re being mean if they honk their horn; surely the offending driver/walker/skateboarder didn’t intend to cause anyone any hassle, so forgive and drive on.

Whatever the reason, I honk. I don’t lean on the horn and scream out the window – that’s a little too New York. But a short beep or two is helpful. You might just give a bad driver second thoughts before he or she drives terribly another day, and you might save a life in the process.

I often find myself not saying things in situations where it might be unwelcome but nonetheless helpful. For example, the person who’s rudely taking up three seats on the Muni train, forcing other commuters to stand. Or the person in a meeting who says something demonstrably untrue and not crucial to the meeting. The world would be a better place if such people behaved correctly, but while my silence in such situations might be annoying and food for thought, it’s not putting lives at risk.

You, however, can make the world a little bit safer by learning to beep your horn at offending drivers who put you and your family at risk.

That’s not an order, but an observation.

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