Spend enough time engaged in bicycle-commuting-themed online discourse and complaining about how nobody pays any attention to you and it’s only a matter of time before someone recommends you put some kind of horn on your bike.
There are various models of high-decibel bicycle horns with flatulent-sounding names available on the market—the AirZound, the Loud Bicycle, the BioLogic Blast—and they each have their devotees. Bike horn enthusiasts also love to make YouTube videos depicting the ostensible effectiveness of their noisemakers in an urban environment. One such rider explains the appeal of the bike horn thusly:
“Stepping off the curb looking into your phone is just insane in New York,” Eugene D. says. The horn cures all that—anytime Eugene activates it, it triggers a reaction in people like they just realized they’re walking into the path of a freight train. “It makes me laugh every time,” he says.
Of course, not everybody appreciates being assaulted with soundwaves, to which Eugene has this to say:
Eugene is unsympathetic. “It just hurts when you realize how unaware people are,” he says. “They think I’m the jerk for following the rules.”
Okay, firstly, Eugene is not following the rules. Honking your horn in New York City in a non-emergency situation is illegal and carries a $350 fine. Granted, this law is enforced so seldomly that the city took down all its no-honking signs back in 2013, but it’s the law nonetheless. Secondly, anybody who unleashes 125 decibels of noise upon total strangers on a regular basis and is not a member of a rock and roll ensemble is, indeed, a complete and utter jerk. (Though frankly much stronger anatomically-themed epithets leap to mind.)
In fairness to Eugene and his horn-honking ilk, it’s understandable that they’re compelled to emulate the behavior of motorists; the message that “bicyclists have all the same rights and responsibilities as motorists” is pervasive in American culture. However, that message is also a complete load of shit, and if you’re going to copy drivers when you’re out on your bike, using a horn is probably the dumbest piece of equipment you can appropriate.
The thing is, horns are inherently stupid and profoundly antisocial, and their very existence is proof of their own uselessness. This is because by the time you’re honking at something you’ve already seen it, and you’ve got plenty of time to react accordingly. Whether you’re in a car or on a bike, if a pedestrian steps out in front of you and you honk at them, you’re doing nothing to promote either their safety or your own. All you’re really doing is scolding them with your Claxon of Shame because they made you feather your brakes for half a second.
I know what you’re thinking: “What nonsense! Car horns prevent collisions! Just the other day I honked at someone who pulled out of the Whole Foods parking lot without looking and they stopped! If I didn’t have a horn I’d have plowed right into them with my Subaru!” Maybe so. In a perfect world drivers would only apply their horns when absolutely necessary, and cars would anally electrocute drivers who use them in non-emergency situations. But our world is far from perfect, and these relatively rare legitimate scenarios do almost nothing to redeem the car horn for being a blight on the cityscape. The rest of the time, the horn merely gives voice to the toddler mindset of the typical driver, and it’s nothing more than a loud, annoying noise they make in order to communicate that they’re angry. Or tired. Or bored. Or hungry. Or that they just shit their diaper. For every one warning honk that may have miraculously transformed a collision course into a near miss, there are a million assholes sitting in traffic jams right now, sounding their horns for no other good reason than to scream “I DON’T LIKE THIS” into the void. And like burnt-out parents, we’ve become desensitized to the incessant bleating, and it serves only to make us resent the source.
(And yes, I realize that in the 21st century the primary use of the car horn is now to alert the phone-addled driver in front of you that the light has changed. For this, I propose a far better and considerably more quiet alternative: nudge them with your bumper. Maybe if we pierce the bubble of driver insularity people will start taking their motoring responsibilities more seriously.)
A cargo ship captain in heavy fog needs a horn; some schmuck in a Hyundai does not. As for the cyclist, befouling a bicycle with a loud horn is like putting a distortion pedal on a Stradivarius, or like gluing great big hairy Popeye arms onto the Venus de Milo. And if you must make noise while riding your bike, we’ve got access to this delightfully sonorous auditory warning system called a bell. Like a horn, it too carries over long distances in order to communicate intent, and yet unlike a horn it does not inspire rage in others. When sharing the streets with your fellow humans, you should be taking your cues from Buddhist monks and not from the engineers at General Motors.
Now stop honking and go meditate on that.