Gridlock Guy: To beep or not to beep

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A report from the Governors Highway Safety Association has bad news. They say pedestrian deaths are at their highest in the U.S. since the '90s. The GHSA estimates 6,227 pedestrians were killed in car accidents in 2018. All other traffic deaths are declining, the report said.

Most commercials, promos, movies, or TV shows that portray traffic use sounds that have lots of horns. These stock sounds have enough horns that seemingly every fourth car would be laying on the horn. This dramatization of traffic is fairly far from reality and even further from the legal use of a car horn.

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I started thinking about what exactly the law says about the proper use of a car horn. The instrument is obviously important, as every vehicle has one and state law says operating a car without a working horn is illegal. But there is a very specific parameter that people can use them.

State law (O.C.G.A. 40-8-70 [2010]) is very clear and basic about how motorists should deploy their horns.

“The driver of a motor vehicle shall, when it is reasonably necessary to ensure safe operation, give audible warning with his or her horn but shall not otherwise use such horn when upon a highway,” Georgia code says. So horns are meant to help ensure safety, nothing more.

The reason I began analyzing the proper use of the horn is because of a recent bad experience. A car turned right in front of me and into my lane one Sunday morning on Clairmont Road in Brookhaven. I briefly hit my horn to both let them know I was close to hitting them and as a sign that doing so was inappropriate. I did nothing more. I then pulled into the next lane to the right and proceeded on at a slightly quicker speed. The car that I honked at pulled up even with me and stayed right at my speed for the next mile or so.

I could tell they were upset, but decided to look straight ahead. I didn’t want to engage them and inflame the situation even more. I could see from the corner of my eye that the upset driver was looking at me and mouthing something. This surprised me, as I had only briefly hit the horn one time and done nothing else.

So in analyzing what I did then and what the law says, the only illegal thing I may have done with the horn could have been intent. After the person had completed the tight maneuver in front of me, my hitting the horn may have been a bit late and I certainly did it at least partially out of aggravation. But I also, as a matter of safety, wanted to let them know that I was there. And letting them know in a corrective way about how dangerous that was could be seen as another matter of safety. Legal or not, they were mad and I tried to stay above reproach after the initial incident. It was over to me.

Now let’s all think about how we all use our horns. Are we using them in the spirit of the law? Popping the horn to let a person know a light is green is appropriate. It gets traffic moving and keeps a car from being stopped in the middle of the road. Tooting the horn when a vehicle drifts into a lane is good, because the other driver can correct themselves before contact. When a car is driving the wrong way down a one-way street or blows through a red light, a stout horn push lets them know at the very least that they are in the wrong and more importantly that there could be oncoming, dangerous traffic.

When the car horn becomes an extension of road rage, it becomes both a weapon and ineffective for its intended use. I have been criticized in the past for not using my horn enough; I was hesitant to, since I didn’t want to seem angry. Thinking back, I should have shed some of that trepidation and used my horn more. As long as the car horn is a tool for safety, it is a very useful thing.

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Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin' Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@coxmg.com .