Suggest muting car horns, as this column did last week, and you're going to get some folks honked off. Others would welcome the silence. Judging by the mail, it's a subject people feel strongly about.
Christopher Winslow was one of several readers who said a timely use of his horn had prevented an accident -- an experience I cannot claim to have shared in more than 30 years of driving.
While he deplored the manners of some honkers, he wrote that the horn "is only a tool, and in the hands of idiots, criminals or the stressed out, it will and can be misused."
He went on: "Personally I have had to use my horn on a number of occasions, especially on the freeway when somebody starts coming into my lane and doesn't see me, because I am in their blind spot. And I have had to use it in similar circumstances when a rude or socially handicapped driver suddenly comes into my lane without signaling and nearly takes off my front bumper."
Not having been there, I can't question his account. But Winslow might be underestimating the degree to which his skillful handling of his car turned potential accidents into near-misses.
Relying on a horn to prevent a collision is risky business. The encroaching driver might very well be hearing-impaired, deep in cell phone conversation or listening to Insane Clown Posse on headphones.
In my experience, the keys to avoiding collision with drifting or darting drivers are:
Anticipation of idiocy. Lousy drivers have more "tells" than a bad poker player. Give them distance and stay out of their blind spots.
Easing up on the gas pedal -- for some the most difficult of driving maneuvers.
As a last resort, application of brakes. Usually unnecessary if you've done the first two.
After that, you're free to blast your horn. But chances are, the matter has been decided by this point. Your amplified rebuke will be received by all in hearing range -- not just the culprit.
Anne McKnew of Riviera Beach reported she had an experience similar to the one described in my last column in which a woman who stopped for crossing deer was subjected to a Concerto for Auto Horn.
"I had stopped at a crosswalk in a parking lot, to allow an elderly man to cross. A `Model Maryland Driver' came up behind me and blew his horn. When I didn't budge, he started to swerve around me, only to have to slam on his brakes to avoid hitting the pedestrian. That crosswalk now has a rather large stop sign in the middle. It is obeyed."
McKnew's account of the incident seems plausible. But Maryland drivers obeying a crosswalk stop sign? She must be pulling my leg.
Seana Coffin, whose brother-in-law suffered eventually fatal injuries in an auto accident, reports that she resisted the urge to honk out a correction at a woman who tailgated her on Northern Parkway.
"If I thought my message would have had some impact with my tailgater, I would have said it. Instead, I remained silent watching her singing and dancing ... seemingly oblivious to the erratic nature of her driving."
You did right. While a blast of the horn might have been briefly cathartic for you, it would have had no effect except to contribute to the "lack of patience and civility" you deplore. And it wouldn't have made her a better driver.
JoAnne Schmitz had a story of creative horn use:
"A car was honking on the street outside my house late one night. The driver was blowing the horn on and off for a good ten minutes. I went out and found it was someone who wanted to get his friend's attention.
"His friend lived in one of the apartments across the street. Why not get out and knock on the door? `I don't know which apartment is his.' Why not call your friend? `I don't have his number.' What's your friend's name? `I don't know.' His friend never materialized."
Nevertheless, Schmitz observed that there are two types of drivers: "Those who could rent a car with a broken horn and never notice, and those who would bring it back five minutes later to complain. I unfortunately belong in the latter group."
Brendan Kelly of Baltimore thinks society isn't ready to give up its honking capacity:
Horns "may be a good safety valve for someone who really needs to let off some steam. If they can blow their horn it may stop them from the next step, which is getting out of the car and screaming colorful language, or worse."
Sad to say, Kelly may have a point. But sometimes, honk-about is fair play, as Mark Adams of Upper Fells Point relates:
"The other week, I was going eastbound in Mount Vernon ... waiting to make a right turn onto St. Paul Street. I was the third in line to make a right turn on to St. Paul. The first guy was not turning on red, although there were a couple of opportunities for him to do so. The second guy, in a big, old Benz, honked his horn. The first guy got out of his car and started yelling at him. Finally, the first guy got back into his car, made his right turn, and the Benz and I pulled closer to the light."
"I couldn't resist. I honked my horn at the guy in the Benz. About a half-dozen people who were waiting on the corner burst out laughing."