While horns are a definite improvement over people walking in front of cars waving red flags in the 1860’s they have intruded into the innermost corners of our minds. Incessant honking is almost as natural as a pulse on Indian roads; it has become an invisible backdrop to our stress and anxiety.
The Indian government has tried to combat almost every element of noise pollution, from enforcing bans on loud music and fireworks and restricting construction sites from functioning to imposing 10 p.m. curfews on parties. A car horn is no less than someone setting off a firecracker every 30 seconds, yet no definite steps have been taken to curb this menace.
China provides a good example of why just a simple ban won’t work. When the municipal government of Shanghai passed a law prohibiting horn use, some citizens found loopholes by replacing their horns with recordings of a woman saying “Please mind the gap”. While creative, this only added to the noise in downtown Shanghai.
The British already have a law under their Highway Codes which imposes fines of upto 1,000 GBP if motorists use the horn as “a tool to alarm others without reasonable intention”. It is difficult to enforce such laws when what is ‘reasonable’ is open to interpretation.
Telematics, or the long-distance transmission of digital information, could hold the key to quantifying responsible horn use. Today a GPS and a car’s on-board diagnostics can combine to send data anywhere.
Formula One teams have been using similar systems to track opponents on the circuit for their driver’s benefit. With slight tweaks to existing telematic capabilities, it would be possible for the government to create a real-time, centralised database to track whenever a car uses a horn.
Insurance companies are already looking to use similar systems to improve risk assessment and develop ‘use-based’ policies. By keeping a track on how frequently a car is driven, the duration and its driver’s habits, premiums could be adjusted to incentivise safe driving – including the use of horns. This could also evolve into a rewards-based system where ‘horn points’ for judicious use are redeemed for everything from a complimentary carwash to a free meal at your favourite restaurant.
Telematic tracking would also allow the government to establish a system of incentives and punishments to gradually curtail horn use, such as a ‘horn tax’ for each unnecessary application. The tax could see the implementation of a nationwide ‘horn meter’ index where vehicles are rated by how much their horns affect the surroundings.
Perhaps we could look at South Korea, where researchers are working on identifying pedestrian-friendly car-horn sounds through a ‘mean option score’ which ranks horns on perceptual parameters such as stress and loudness. The eventual application can be applied to any vehicle and aims to improve the country’s soundscape.
Would it be impossible to imagine a future where we could ban honking altogether? When every car is smart enough – though various sensors – to know exactly where to go and what is around it, there would be no lane switching, no overtakes or no pedestrians crossing your path. Horns wouldn’t be needed at all.
Originally meant to warn pedestrians of an approaching vehicle, the horn these days is used to express indignation and frustration above everything else. Excessive horn use also speaks to a lack of respect for others as it reduces them to nothing more than obstacles in one’s path. It may not be the most visible aspect of pollution, but noise disrupts an essential requirement of life: peace of mind.