To Honk or Not to Honk? An Expert Weighs in on Driving Etiquette
Lizzie Post, the great-great granddaughter of Emily Post, author, and co-host of The Awesome Etiquette Podcast, has agreed to weigh in on a few travel etiquette questions from a politesse perspective. We've tackled knees-on-seats, reclining etiquette, kids on planes and Airbnb. Now, what are the best rules for the road?
What are your guiding principles for good driving manners?
“Safety, safety, safety, safety, safety, safety. Did I mention safety? This is a car. This is a big piece of metal and plastic and sparks and things that are going to catch fire; you must be careful with it. Safety is the number one etiquette when it comes to driving. … Our rules of the road are there for us to follow them.”
Why do people lose track of that when driving?
“It’s very easy when you are in your little metal plastic box to get angry in the person in the little metal plastic box next to you…because you are quite literally contained. The trick is to not let your frustration cause you to mishandle the car. ... If you try to cut someone off on the New York City sidewalk, it’s very easy—there’s no physical boundary there—they could yell at you. In a car you have two layers of boundaries, and you feel like it’s OK to shout or honk or cut someone off with it. There are all these things that keep us from confronting someone face to face, just like the internet provides an electronic brick wall, so that we don’t see the person that we’re arguing with or making fun of. … Here, you have quite literally a physical barrier. It makes us more willing to do something risky, and makes us feel more protected.
Do you have more traffic etiquette must-dos?
“Good driving etiquette is really, first, following the rules of the road because that’s safety but it’s also paying attention and having consideration for your fellow drivers, bikers, or walkers on the road. It’s also having respect for the severity that could ensue if you don’t. … [Pay] attention to what’s going on around you and how to facilitate traffic going forward. People joke that in Vermont, four people will pull up to a stop and all of them will wave to let the other person go first. It really, just, start with being aware of the people around you. You check those blind spots regularly; you look not just four feet in front of your car at the skateboard or dog but you look 8 feet in front of you, 30 feet in front, and you’re really aware of your surroundings.”
When is it good etiquette to let someone into your lane from a stopped position?
“I ask myself a couple questions: What’s going on all around me? Is the line of traffic a steady stream of 25, 30 miles an hour, or is it at a dead standstill? When it’s barely moving, it’s an easy consideration to let somebody in. When it’s a steady stream, it’s the responsibility of the person trying to get in: If one person stops dead, there will probably be a pileup. When traffic is really slow, people are a lot more willing to let people in, take turns.”
Is it ever OK to honk?
“If you do just one quick light beep, [as in], ‘Hey, light’s turned green!’ or ‘It’s your turn at the intersection!’ it’s like a quick, light tap on the shoulder. When you get into longer honks, you can hear the anger in them. When you’re leaning on the horn infinitely you’re showing that you’ve lost control and you’re mad and you want everybody to know you’re mad.”
What if I’m dangerously cut off? Am I entitled to honk?
“This is where I have trouble because I would say that … I’d caution you to say, ‘What does it do for you to honk at that person?’ Let’s say we’re traveling on the highway where you’re really in my blindspot … Use the horn as an alert system, which I think is what it’s there for.”
Is it OK to use the horn to scold someone for being unsafe?
“I think it’s true to the extent that when you’re doing it to alert somebody that what they’re doing is unsafe—[in a] blind spot, [or] pulling in—you need to let them know you’re there. Say you’re on a 40 mile an hour road, and they pass you at 60 miles an hour, chances are that your honking [will do nothing]. To me, it’s almost not worth it. You’re basically in the territory of screaming out ‘Hey!’ if a kid rushed a little close to you on his skateboard. How worth it is it to you to make that safety check known? … To me, I’ve learned it’s not worth it or polite or standing up for safety for me to honk at someone who is going that fast.”
What’s the downside of honking? Some would say it’s harmless.
“If a guy passes you at 80 miles an hour, he knows he’s going too fast, [and] I think it’s unnecessary to honk at him, because what good is it really going to do? It’s more about you venting your frustration than alerting him to something he doesn’t know about. Do you need to? Maybe you do. I might say, ‘Let it go. He’s probably gonna get busted by a speed trap. You honking at him isn’t going to slow him down. Pick your battles.’ The truth is—what difference does it make then? Hearing a lot of honking does raise anger levels or emotional levels on the road so the more you can keep that at a minimum the less you are contributing to intensity on the road. … My inclination would be that the more calm people are on the road the more the road is a safe place. He ticked you off; you allow it to affect you; you’re now a second angry person on the road.”
What do you do when someone uses the breakdown lane to get ahead of a traffic jam?
“The breakdown lane is there for breakdowns. It’s not there for you to be using and that’s just law. You need to follow the law when you’re on the road.”
Would you let the person who tries to cut the line at the last minute into a lane or exit?
“Ask me that on various days. I’ve certainly had my moments where I’ve been like, ‘You know what, buddy? You can wait till some other nice guy else comes along. You abused what you shouldn’t have abused.’ [That said], is he gonna be a car just hanging out [unsafely] in the left lane? … A lot of driving comes to the bigger picture. In all actuality that jerk doesn’t matter enough to me to punish him. On a good day!”
What is current Good Samaritan etiquette if you see a car with emergency lights on?
“If it’s an accident you’ve pulled up to, you’re supposed to stop and call. My first car accident, at night, I was 16 years old, in freezing cold conditions. I watched two or three cars drive straight by me. At least call 911. I don’t know what the law [is] around it, but I think you need to really trust your own gut. Either you can stop and check … or pull over responsibly and make the phone call to 911. When I’m not on a highway, especially, and I can drive by and put the window down—I’m a woman alone at night, traveling…I do put self-protection in there for sure—and ask, ‘Do you need me to call 911?’ As long as no one is injured, I’m probably going to keep going. If it’s an issue of safety and we’re talking about blood and guts on the highway, that’s different.”
Any other tips?
“Don’t just turn into another angry driver on the road. I feel like retaliation is like, ‘Oh, you cut me off, watch what… or here, I’ll slow down because you’ve been driving slowly in front of me.’ You’re playing with a large, heavy piece of equipment. Absolutely never go to a place of retaliation.”