Rules of the Road

Beep beep: the Road Runner breaks the law and could be considered a ‘jerk’ – are you?

Despite what the Road Runner did in old cartoons and what many drivers practice, there is no provision for mad honking in the law. It doesn’t tend to fix anything, and generally just makes road safety worse.
Despite what the Road Runner did in old cartoons and what many drivers practice, there is no provision for mad honking in the law. It doesn’t tend to fix anything, and generally just makes road safety worse. Getty Images/iStockphoto

Question: When is it legal to use your horn? Or maybe I should ask, when is it not legal to use your horn? Some drivers use their horn for a lot of things that aren’t emergencies.

Answer: There’s a debate about whether the Road Runner from Looney Tunes says “beep beep” or “meep meep.” In the few minutes of research I did on the topic, I concluded that in the script the Road Runner was supposed to read it was “beep beep”, but he actually said, “meep meep.” Either way, what he was doing was technically a violation of the law. At least in Washington.

I found two references to honking in our state’s traffic laws; one is a more general rule and the other applies specifically to encounters between drivers and pedestrians. Here are the key points of both:

According to RCW 46.37.380, you can use your horn “when reasonably necessary to insure safe operation ...” It goes on to say that the horn can’t be used in any other situations while on the road.

And in RCW 46.61.245, “every driver of a vehicle shall exercise due care to avoid colliding with any pedestrian ... and shall give warning by sounding the horn when necessary ...”

Both laws about horn use limit our horns to when necessary for safety. That’s where the Road Runner got it wrong; I spent some time watching old Road Runner cartoons (purely for research, of course) and determined that he’d beep (or meep) just for fun.

Of course you want the option to honk to warn someone of a hazard (especially if that hazard is you). That’s what the horn is there for and that’s what the law allows.

But what about the other times you want to use your horn? Maybe to let an oblivious driver in front of you at an intersection know that the light has turned from red to green, or to give an alert to someone to let them know they left their purse on the roof of their car.

By the strictest reading of the law, in both of those situations horn use is not allowed. And I’m guessing that in both of those situations most of us are going to honk anyway. The question then is, “How do you honk without being a jerk?”

As drivers, we’re limited in how we can communicate with other road users. Our cars give us turn signals, brake lights and a horn. That’s about it.

For the oblivious intersection situation or the rooftop-purse-driver our turn signals and brake lights aren’t going to help at all, so we’re left with the horn.

For those who, despite the law, feel compelled to honk to help out another driver, maybe we can agree on some horn etiquette. Here’s what I propose: In an emergency lay on that horn as long as you need to get someone to see a hazard (and no longer). To help someone out, make it two quick beeps (like the Roadrunner). And like the Roadrunner, the two quick beeps are intended to say, “This isn’t an emergency, but I want to get your attention.” It’s a courtesy honk.

There’s actually a former NASA engineer named Mark Rober who gave this problem a lot of thought and the result is what he calls the “Nicest car horn ever.” He improved on my “beep beep” recommendation by making his beeps much more pleasant sounding, using a separate horn and buttons, along with the ability to upload new horn sounds to his car. For those of you interested in taking your horn honking abilities to the next level, you can find him on YouTube.

I’d like to point out that I didn’t suggest any horn honking techniques for when you’re just plain mad at another driver. That’s because we’re working from the assumption (as mentioned earlier) that we don’t want to be perceived as jerks when we honk. There is no provision for mad honking in the law; it doesn’t tend to fix anything, and generally just makes road safety worse.

As a side note, years ago my parents taught me, before I ever went on a date, that the proper way to pick up your date is to walk up to the front door and ring the bell, not sit in your car on the side of the road and honk the horn. Turns out that not only is it disrespectful to wait in the car and honk, it’s also against the law.

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Doug Dahl, Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force, answers questions about road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices every Monday. Ask him a question using our form. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com.

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