Human beings are social animals. Our prevalence on this planet is largely to do with our ability to form cohesive social groups that can share resources and responsibilities, so as to more effectively utilise the time and skills of individuals. As such, our brains are wired for empathy; to effectively work and live alongside other people you need to be able to understand their wants, their needs, and their feelings, so that you can act in accordance with them.
While being alive might, at times, feel like a frightfully isolating experience, we are at our core a communal species. We might not show on a larger scale (look at, say, politics and video game fandoms), but it is fundamentally true on a person-to-person level that we like getting along. We enjoy both liking and being liked by other people. We like helping one another. We like making one another happy. We don’t like disagreements. We don’t like conflict. We don’t like being thought badly of.
All that shit goes right out the window when you’re driving a car.
Regardless of how powerful our natural capacity for forming bonds and solving disagreements might be, it is immediately switched off the moment there are one or more car windshields between you and the other party. Minor inconveniences become outrages of historical proportion, another driver’s careless mistake becomes a personal slight against you, who they are seemingly hellbent on destroying entirely. For whatever reason, when not face-to-face with another person, we refuse to give them the benefit of the doubt.
An example: You are in traffic. You and your fellow motorists in the outermost lane know that your lane is about to shortly end, so you dutifully merge well before the lane disappears. All of a sudden, someone comes up roaring past in the lane your previously occupied, gets to the end, and slams on their indicator, forcing someone much further ahead of you to let them in before they run out of road.
There are any number of charitable explanations you could consider. Maybe they are unfamiliar with the road and didn’t realise that they needed to merge until it was too late. Maybe they were distracted by something. Maybe they were just having a bad day.
But no, the natural conclusion to come to when afflicted by the psychological disorder known as Car Brain is that this bastard has knowingly and gladly violated the great Unwritten Rules of the Road — has forsaken the human social contract entirely, so disinterested are they in having the trust and respect of their fellow man — in order to gain the great advantage of being roughly six cars ahead in traffic.
The road is a hostile place that allows us only two forms of communication between each other: simply hand gestures (mostly rude ones), and the car horn — an instrument that, by design, produces the most obnoxious, aggressive noise that can be made with a single tone.
The car horn is intended to be used in emergencies, to make either your presence or the presence of a hazard known to another party. In the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic, an agreement on road rules recognised by a large portion of the world, the only two acceptable uses for your horn are the prevention of an accident or (in non-metropolitan areas) to let another driver know that you care about to overtake them.
But, deprived of speech, we use the car horn for other things. Someone driving too slowly? Beep them. Someone cuts you off? Beep them. Someone pulls out in front of you too late, forcing you to slow down? You know what you must do.
The noise of a car horn is perfect for this: aggressive, confident, loud, unwavering. The noise of a car horn is not a noise that expects or allows for a response. It is not a noise of discussion. It is not a noise that is open to the recipient’s side of the story. It is the mechanical equivalent of screaming ‘FUCK YOU’ while cutting your ears off.
In a perfect world, you could strictly limit your horn-use to emergency situations. You could refrain from ever using the horn — that hideous instrument — in anger. As we all know, however, this is not a perfect world.
There are other situations that require the horn. Perhaps the driver in front of you has not realised that the light has gone green. Maybe you need to let a driver whose visibility is limited know that you are stopping to let them reverse out of their park. Maybe you need to politely alert another driver that they are trying to turn down a one-way street. Maybe you’ve just seen a friend walking by the road.
Using the car horn in these situations feels like using a sledgehammer to tighten the screws in a pair of glasses. This is why I propose the secondary, smaller horn for polite toots.
Instead of a loud, abrasive middle G#, the secondary horn would let out the delightful tinkle of a B one octave up. This happy chirp would be used as a more friendly signal to your fellow man: “Hey buddy, no stress, just something I wanted to let you know about.”
The secondary horn would allow you to make sure that the other party doesn’t believe that you are being an asshole and, similarly, make sure that they don’t believe that you believe that they are an asshole.
The Polite Toot Horn could act as a ‘sorry’ horn or, if you can even imagine it, as a ‘thank you’ horn. It could herald in a new age of driverly politeness and road community as we give drivers a method of communication that isn’t just a button that angrily screams.
Will this simple invention eventually solve all of our interpersonal problems, a phenomenon that will swiftly extrapolate out to global politics, finally establishing world peace?
Look, I don’t want to rule it out.