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.

New York officials have tried to discourage honking since at least the 1930s. In 1936, “prolonged and unreasonable blowing of a horn” was outlawed when the city passed its first comprehensive noise code. The first attempt at systematic enforcement was a five-month period in 1973, when, The New York Times reported, 25 inspectors were required to devote a week every month to doling out summonses at busy intersections. The city also distributed bumper stickers and leaflets with the message “Let’s make horn honking a blast from the past.”

In 1986, Mayor Ed Koch’s administration unveiled “Don’t Honk” signs in some of the city’s noisiest areas. Offending drivers, the signs warned, would be fined.

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