A woman is driving along a hilly, curving, two-lane road one night in Baltimore's outer suburbs. It is rainy and the fog severely limits visibility. The speed limit is 30 mph. She is going 30 mph.
She is driving particularly carefully because she is aware that deer abound in the area and does not want a side of venison to land in her lap.
Model Maryland Motorist comes driving up the same road behind her going about 50 mph. MMM is driving an oversize SUV. MMM proceeds to tailgate the woman while flashing brights repeatedly.
Suddenly a deer bounds out of the woods and crosses the road. The woman catches sight of a fawn following it and stops to let Bambi cross.
What does MMM do?
(a) Takes a cue from the woman's caution and comes to a stop, maintaining a prudent distance and going on alert for deer.
(b) Stews mildly at the inconvenience, but waits for the woman to resume forward progress after the fawn crosses.
(c) Slides to a stop, blasts on horn repeatedly and rolls down window so the woman can better hear the epithets directed at her. When the woman finally turns into a driveway, guns engine, flashes a middle-finger salute and screeches past her at high rate of speed.
If your answer isn't (c), you're not from around here, are you?
(Disclaimer: The woman in this true-life example is my wife.)
This use of a car horn is fairly typical. Using it as intended - as a safety-enhancing device - is not.
Have you noticed that for every person who uses his horn for a legitimate reason, somewhere around 453 1/2 use it to complain, prod, insult, berate, startle, sexually harass, drunkenly celebrate or avoid the exertion of a short walk to knock on a door?
The horn has been standard automotive equipment since the dawn of the horseless carriage. The modern horn is a type known as the klaxon - adopted largely because of its effectiveness in persuading cattle to move. The word derives from the Greek word klaxo, "to scream."
The klaxon-style horn replaced the old-fashioned toot-toot style early in the 20th century. Among other things, it was found to be highly effective in persuading cows to get out of the road.
Travel through downtown Baltimore at rush hour and you will hear a cattle drive of cacophony as hundreds of put-upon noise polluters honk at the indignity of sharing the streets with others.
Maryland drivers seem to find it especially satisfying to use their horns on pedestrians. The technique is simple: Crawl up behind someone walking to their car in a mall parking lot, mash the horn full blast and watch 'em jump.
For this stunt, Maryland law would fine you $50 - if it were ever enforced. If your horn isn't loud enough, the fine is $60.
If you're not satisfied with the heights to which your factory-issue horn inspires victims, there's a solution. You can go online and buy the "Bad Boy Super Loud Car Horn by WOLO." It claims to up your noise output to 118 decibels, and the ad copy makes the purpose clear:
"Now you can have that loud horn blast that lets others know that patience is not one of your virtues!" it reads. "The Wolo Bad Boy is one of the best-selling horns around! Makes a great gift for the `Bad Boy' who already has everything!"
Maybe it's time to rethink all these bad boys.
Perhaps sometime in remote antiquity, somebody took a scientific look at the automobile horn and determined it did more good than harm. But most of the highways are bovine-free now, and we're in the Age of Rage. For all we know, the chances a horn would save a beeper's life are outweighed by the risk that the beep-ee would pull Mr. Luger out of the glove compartment and beg to differ.
Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said he's aware of no research on horns and safety. He said that as far as he can tell, the principal use is "to express annoyance at the person in front of you."
"I would think that the safety justifications for horns are very slim one way or another," said Lund.
Maybe the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has studied just about everything else in its 40 years of existence, should look into whether the auto horn is a bad idea that somehow took hold. Perhaps it should go the way of the smoke-filled airliner cabin.
"I am confident that taking away people's horns would reduce, rather than increase accidents," information scientist Eugene Garfield said in a 1983 essay. "One wonders whether if in most instances horn-honking isn't a poor substitute for simply slowing down."
Obviously, there are cases in which a driver at a red light is daydreaming when it turns green. For these, we can equip each vehicle with a bicycle horn of the type employed by Harpo Marx. If we can't make drivers more courteous, at least we can make them funnier.