Most N.Y.C. Drivers Who Honk Are Breaking the Law. Can They Be Stopped?

Most N.Y.C. Drivers Who Honk Are Breaking the Law. Can They Be Stopped?

Hardly a second had passed since the light turned green, but there was already a symphony of honks and beeps and toots urging traffic forward on Columbus Avenue. About a minute later, a deep, foghorn-like honk rumbled from a dump truck as it turned onto 89th Street.

It was a typical weekday morning on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Speaking loudly over the horns of impatient drivers, several locals said in interviews that they were unbothered by the constant honking.

“I think I’m so used to it that my mind kind of drowns it out,” said Erin Clement, 38, who was out walking her Bernedoodle. “It just feels like the soundtrack to the city.”

Using a vehicle horn when there is no “imminent danger” is prohibited under New York City’s noise code. A small number of local officials, noise experts and activists have pushed the city for decades to enforce the law. But catching offenders in the act is difficult, and in a city notorious for its aggressive driving culture and heavy traffic, squashing the urge to honk is an uphill battle.

Arline Bronzaft, an environmental psychologist who has studied noise pollution in New York City for decades and is one of the most vocal proponents of stronger enforcement, was thrilled.

“You should have seen the smile on my face when those signs first went up and we pointed to the words ‘Don’t Honk,’” Ms. Bronzaft, who lives on the Upper East Side, recalled.

Ms. Bronzaft, now 88, hoped the signs would educate people about the prohibition and deter at least some drivers from honking. But eventually the city appeared to surrender to the noise. In 2013, the Transportation Department, citing a lack of evidence that the signs were having any effect, took them all down.

The department noted at the time that complaints to 311 about honking had declined significantly citywide over the previous five years, though it acknowledged that the reason for the drop was unclear.

It is also unclear whether there is more unnecessary honking in the city today than there was when the signs were in place. But the number of complaints about car and truck horns appears to have nearly quadrupled in the decade since the signs came down. In 2013, there were 2,294 honking complaints made to 311, according to a Times analysis of city data. In 2023, there were 9,047.

In recent years, the city has embraced new technology to capture vehicle noise violations and help lower traffic volume. The City Council in November passed a bill expanding the use of “noise cameras,” which the Department of Environmental Protection uses to ticket people who drive cars with modified mufflers or who honk excessively. The program began in 2022 with just one camera that was moved around to different parts of the city, and has since expanded to 10 cameras, according to a department spokesman. The city plans to increase that number to 25 by 2025.

Illegal honking accounts for roughly 24 percent of the infractions caught by noise cameras, according to the spokesman. Through the noise camera program, 165 summonses for illegal horn honking were issued in 2023, the spokesman said, and nine had been issued in 2024 as of mid-March. Fines range from $800 to $2,500.

Gale Brewer, a former Manhattan borough president and current City Council member who represents the Upper West Side, said there was a contingent of city officials, activists and community members who feel strongly about addressing noise pollution, “although, admittedly, there aren’t a lot of us.” She said she thought most people were unaware that honking was illegal, and that those who knew about the law didn’t care.

There are plenty of legitimate reasons drivers blow their horns, said Dwight Hennessy, a psychology professor at SUNY Buffalo State University who specializes in traffic psychology. A person might honk to warn pedestrians and other drivers about a dangerous situation, he said, or to gently communicate to a distracted driver that a traffic signal has changed.

“But it’s not always a, ‘Hey, the light turned green,’ but more of a ‘Hey, jackass, come on, move it! You’re in my way!’” Mr. Hennessy said.

This second type of honking rarely accomplishes anything, he said. We expect other people to follow various unwritten rules of the road as well as traffic laws, but cities and regions develop their own driving cultures, and people form different habits depending on where they learn to drive.

“What’s interesting about New York City is there are so many drivers and most of them probably learned to drive somewhere else,” he said.

Constant exposure to honking and other noise causes stress, which can accumulate over time and “have a wear and tear in the body,” Mr. Hennessy said. Research shows that living in a noisy area can significantly increase the risk of hypertension, strokes and heart attacks, and high noise levels in schools are associated with heightened stress hormones, lower reading scores and hyperactivity among children.

Despite nearly a century of efforts, it seems unlikely that New York City will ever be able to eradicate unnecessary honking.

Both Ms. Bronzaft and Mr. Hennessy said, however, that a few people might be persuaded to lay off their horns if the city allocated more resources to educating the public about the dangers of noise pollution.

“Would I honk my horn at 11 p.m. if I really cared about people?” Ms. Bronzaft said. “If you were respectful and decent and kind and you knew it would be detrimental to the community, you wouldn’t do it.”

On the Upper West Side, Michael Zorek, 63, said that most of the time, honking “becomes part of the background,” though he added that the drivers who lean on their horns sometimes get on his nerves.

“You can’t print it in The New York Times,” he said of his thoughts about those drivers, laughing.

But most people expressed similar opinions to that of Michael Schnier, who was walking his dog down Columbus Avenue.

“If you want peace and quiet, you’re in the wrong place,” he said.

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