It’s no surprise to Derek Sheen that honking is up.
The fourth-generation Seattleite, who was taught as a youth to “drive slowly and take your time,” remembers not so long ago when use of the horn was an anomaly, a rarity that drew swivels, stares and steely looks of consternation from the passive and law-abiding populace.
But these days, Sheen, a comedian who lives in West Seattle and says it takes him “nine days” to get to Seattle, explains that traffic is now so bad no matter where you are going that you will always end up merging into Seattle’s “one and only lane of traffic.”
Now he respects the honk as a necessary way to communicate and let off steam. “It’s like a curse word for your car. How hard you honk the horn is related to which swear word you want to use.”
He is not the only one, according to a new poll from PEMCO Insurance which shows a majority of surveyed Washington and Oregon residents are embracing the horn as a tool of communication. (PEMCO is a sponsor of Traffic Lab, The Seattle Times project that covers transportation.)
“What surprised me was the number of drivers who don’t seem to mind when other drivers honk at them — more than half said they react by acknowledging the other driver with a ‘gesture of thanks,’ ” said Derek Wing, a spokesperson for the Seattle-based insurance company.
“Just from my own experiences on the road, it doesn’t always seem as though drivers are thankful for the nudge, but our data show that only a few admit that honking makes them mad.”
According to the poll, 68% of Seattle drivers say it’s at least somewhat appropriate to honk, whereas about half (46%) said the same in 2017. In the Portland metro area, 61% say it’s appropriate to honk at others, compared to 52% in 2017.
And drivers these days, especially younger ones, don’t seem to mind the nudge.
When honked at, about half (48%) claim they respond with a wave or gesture of thanks. Only 26% of drivers admit that being honked at makes them mad.
In Seattle, about three-quarters (72%) of drivers under 55 say it’s sometimes appropriate to honk at others in comparison to about half (52%) of those 55 years and older. In Portland, 67% of drivers under 55 say it’s at least somewhat OK to honk at others, while only 44% of those older than 55 say the same.
“Whether it’s increased frustration from traffic, more residents moving here from honk-prone regions or just a natural shift in how we behave behind the wheel, we were surprised to see such a significant jump in how Northwest drivers feel about horn honking,” Wing said. “In my personal experience, as a native East Coaster, I’ve had to learn to lay off the horn since becoming a Pacific Northwest resident. But perhaps a more East Coast vibe is catching on here as we welcome more transplants to the area.”
It’s possible people simply forgot how to drive, Wing said, “since they’ve been home for so long during the pandemic.”
Sam Louie, an Eastside psychotherapist, moved back to Seattle a little more than a decade ago after living and driving in many other parts of the U.S., including Los Angeles.
When he first returned, he said he drove fast and aggressively “in all three lanes” and was amazed at how irritatingly slow everybody else seemed to be.
But over time, fatherhood and his Seattle roots slowed him down.
“I didn’t want to give myself an ulcer,” said Louie.
This summer, he and his family rented an RV and drove all around the country — slowly, and in the right lane, he said.
“It was great,” he said. “It was such a relief to stay in one lane and not have to worry about being tailgated or try to leapfrog around people.”
As a mental heath counselor, he thinks that in addition to an evolving culture being formed by newcomers to the area, the increase in honking could be related to stress.
“There is a sense of powerlessness in our lives, and the car may be the one place we feel powerful — and honking may be an expression of that,” he said.
The poll, which queried 420 people from the Seattle area and 418 from around Portland, also asked when it’s an appropriate time to use your horn — after all, it’s there for a reason.
Honking when it helps keep each other safe was the resounding response. Northwest residents cite the most appropriate reason to beep your horn as warning someone else that they are in danger. Additionally, 55% of respondents said it was appropriate to honk at another driver who isn’t paying attention to keep fellow drivers safe, whether the distracted driver is eating, on their phone or daydreaming.
Sheen, who will be performing at the Ballard Comedy Club Thursday through Sunday, said that one reason the honk may have been so slow to catch on here is that Pacific Northwesterners are “polite, strangely passive and weirdly law-abiding.”
According to Washington state law and the Seattle Municipal Code, it’s illegal to have a warning device that emits “an unreasonably loud or harsh sound” or to honk for any other reason than to “ensure safe operation.”