Weekday morning. Rush hour. A driver coming off the Vic West end of the Bay Street bridge is stopped at Tyee, waiting to turn left.
A sign reads No Left Turn, but the woman ignores it, causing vehicles to pile up behind her. The other drivers seethe, the smoke from their ears mixing with the exhaust from their tailpipes, but the woman doesn’t care. She don’t follow The Man’s rules.
And that’s when it happens: The guy in the truck crowding her back bumper angrily leans on his horn.
Frequent readers might recall something similar happening a few years ago. A motorist honked his horn, an act of aggression that seemed so out of place in Victoria that I felt compelled to describe the scene in a column. Basically, people reacted in the way they would to an earthquake: with shocked silence, followed by the clutching of pearls. Birds stopped singing. Pedestrians turned and gaped at the sky, wondering where this mysterious, jarring sound had come from. One driver, suspecting he had run over a goose, got out and checked his undercarriage.
This being Victoria, others in the gathering crowd began arguing about whether this strange noise should be blamed on A) the Rumbles, B) chemtrails, or C) Lisa Helps.
“No,” interjected a recent visitor to Vancouver, “that was a car horn.”
This elicited a collective gasp. Two onlookers fainted, while others made the sign of the cross.
One does not sound one’s horn in Victoria, at least not out of anger, I wrote at the time. It’s just not done. Here in the City of Gardens, we treat the horns in our cars in the same way hormonal teenage boys carry condoms in their wallets, neither expecting nor knowing how to use them.
Except now, apparently, we do. Same day as the Bay Street beeping, I saw — or heard — somebody blare his horn after almost becoming the victim of another driver’s ill-timed turn on Cadboro Bay Road. Then, same day, someone else played an extended one-note lament while inching down coagulated Wharf Street.
This is the way horns are most often used. The law says we’re only supposed to sound them to warn other drivers of impending danger, but mostly we do it to express frustration or scold others for their actions.
Most jurisdictions have rules that ban such gratuitous honking (Victoria’s bylaw carries a $200 penalty) though they’re seldom enforced. Some drivers get charged, though: in the U.S., offenders have argued their honking constitutes an act of protest and should therefore be protected as free speech. Not so, the courts have ruled. In the case of a man who repeatedly hammered his horn while trapped in Manhattan gridlock, prosecutors successfully argued that not only do anti-beeping laws reduce noise, but they increase the effectiveness of horns when they are actually needed — the idea being that if we grow used to horns being used as a form of audible middle finger, we’ll grow deaf to them as a means of warning.
Also, history shows that if you do use your horn as an alternative to slugging another driver in the nose, chances are you’ll get punched on your own honker.
In May, a Calgary man whose horn-honking escalated into race-based abuse was charged with a hate crime. In July, a Washington state hornfest ended with a shirtless man (always a sign of stability) throwing an axe at another driver’s window. Two weeks ago, a Michigan man pulled a gun on a vehicle carrying eight children after the latter vehicle’s driver honked at him for not moving at a green light. In Tennessee, a woman who sounded her horn after being cut off in traffic was shot at by a woman in the offending car.
None of this explains why we hear horns more often these days, though.
Is it the pandemic? COVID actually ushered in an era of positive horn use, with vehicular parades substituting for in-person grad ceremonies, birthday parties and baby showers. Today, intersections are frequently infested with sign-waving federal election campaigners urging morning commuters to sound their support, which must thrill the neighbours.
More often, though, the honking reflects frayed tempers or anxiety or a lashing-out against all we have had to deal with in the past year and a half. Police have already reported troubling rises in other behaviours, such as speeding. And remember the night this summer when VicPD had to shut down its roadblock early because the cops and tow trucks were overwhelmed by the number of drunk drivers? So much for be kind, be calm, be safe.
Maybe it would be best to treat our horns like our computers, and count to 10 before hitting the send button.