Reclaiming the natural soundscape from horn-based vehicle alerts

About the Silence the Horns project: mission, history, justification, and positions

Primary Mission

Silence the Horns advocates for the elimination of horn sounds in acoustic vehicle alerts. Our primary mission is that all new cars manufactured for sale in North America not use a horn device for non-emergency purposes. Such functions include remote lock feedback, remote start feedback, vehicle location when one forgets where a car is parked, tire pressure alerts, charging alerts, alerts of key fobs left in cars, forgetting if one locked one's car, and pedestrian alerts. We seek to accomplish this goal through consistent industry agreement, or federal legislation as needed.

Once non-emergency horn use has been eliminated in newly manufactured vehicles, efforts will also focus on reducing non-emergency horn use in the existing fleet of vehicles.


The Silence the Horns project is a grassroots effort organized in early 2014 by a physician from the Washington DC metro area and a public health graduate student from New York City, each of whom had attempted to address the technology by writing to elected leaders and automakers, to no avail. Prior efforts were local and had achieved mixed results 1 or addressed car alarms rather than lock signaling. 2 The project and its video launched as a focused project within a non-profit, but has operated independently for over two years (and remains friendly with the non-profit organization, now a strong supporter).

The project's organizers encourage supporters to direct criticism of the technology to automakers, government agencies, and industry regulators and trade associations rather than criticizing or disparaging users of the technology. Automakers defend horn-based technology by saying that users "have a choice" as to whether to even use a sound, essentially blaming car owners. We disagree, and counter that automakers created a need in people who could as easily have become accustomed to using flashing lights, trusting that the key fob works, or otherwise not having to confirm locking.


Horn-based signals interrupt sleep, and good sleep is critical to health and safety.

We've heard from hundreds of people who experience fragmented sleep because of horn-based convenience signals being used in residential spaces, and tens of thousands of online posts describe similar sleep disruption - some are posted by frustrated car owners wanting to deactivate technology that is waking their neighbors. 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Adequate sleep is positively associated with overall good health, health-related behaviors, learning, and performance 11 12 13 and sleep plays a critical function in metabolite clearance from the adult brain, which is essential in ensuring metabolic homeostasis. 14 Chronically shortened and fragmented sleep are associated with changes in cortisol levels, glucose metabolism, and other metabolic processes, including increased body mass index, overweight, obesity, and diabetes. 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Adequate sleep is also critical to safe driving as well as cognitive and motor performance. 23 24

Use of horn signals for convenience reflects misuse of a safety signal.

For many people, horn honking sends a signal, and the startle response is innate. In parking lots and on streets, people have reported to us about being startled or confused when cycling past parked cars and while maneuvering into or out of a parking space. In parking lots, people report jamming a foot on the brake pedal or gas pedal as an automated response to a "locking" horn honk. One driver reported quickly jamming the gas pedal while turning in to a driveway in response to a "locking" honk, and not being able to recover in time to avoid colliding with a stone fence.

Use of an aggressive sound and social justice.

Horns are an aggressive sound. Misuse of horns with lock signaling has resulted in tension among neighbors and retaliatory behavior from those who complain about and those who create the sound. Discordant horn honking is strongly related to safety because of its aggressive nature, its intended role as a safety alert, and its role in crashes, road rage incidents, and other bullying incidents that have resulted in serious injury and death. 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32

Horn use with lock signaling and other non-emergency signaling is a social justice issue because there is much higher prevalence of its use in areas inhabited by people with lower incomes, living in denser built environments, and with less likelihood of either being able to move away or having access to a "quiet side" with reduced street noise. In the auto industry, everyone from CEOs to product developers to marketers talk about "future mobility" and throw in data about urban life to appear competitive, but actually seem to have little awareness of the way that actual people live in actual built environments. In cities and suburbs, it is commonplace for bedrooms to overlook streets and parking lots. We have received more tales of misery from people who can't escape high prevalence of lock signal horn honking because they cannot afford to live elsewhere than we've received from any other group.

When there are quieter and silent alternatives, use of an emergency acoustic signal for a mundane event is unjustified. Technology is supposed to solve problems, not create more of them.

Non-emergency horn use violates state driving regulations and sound ordinances.

According to driving regulations in most US states, horn use is limited to emergencies such as warning of danger as well as some very specific instances while driving. Use of horns for non-emergencies is also prohibited by many local noise codes and sound ordinances. When auto industry design engineers started using horn signals to confirm locking and other non-emergency activities, they made a conscious decision to dismiss safety regulations and ignore legal codes.

Position Statements

Electronic Tone or "Chirp" Sounds

Most cars sold in the US and Canada leave the factory, and the dealership, with some form of audible lock signal, while the same cars are set to lock silently in overseas markets. Most cars can be locked actively or passively without any sound, and a sound is used for psychological assurance. With a key fob, this is accomplished by pressing the lock key twice rather than once, which creates either a sound or flashing lights. Lock status can also be confirmed by testing the doors, looking at a dashboard light, or checking status on a smart phone. Some owner manuals have instructions for reconfiguring some systems, setting them to a visual signal such as flashing lights.

Roughly half of all cars sold in the US and Canadian markets use an electronic tone sound rather than the sound of a honking horn. Our position reflects a compromise rather than concensus. Among Silence the Horns project organizers and longtime advocates, many would prefer no sound at all - and people have writtent to us expressing dismay at having to hear a cacophony of honks and chirps within their living spaces. Some people who have written to us have cited exacerbation of mental illness as a deeply personal argument against use of any sound that enters others' living spaces.

We consider transition from a horn signal to a soft electronic tone to be an improvement. Our project advocates for elimination of any and all non-emergency horn sounds in vehicle signaling because of the aggressive and startling nature of horn sounds, and because it is inappropriate to use an emergency signal to reflect non-emergency situations. But the choice to use an electronic tone is not a casual one, and should be made with care, consideration, and respect. The Audi "chirp" is startling and grating. Why add such a sound to public space? The BMW electronic tone is too loud - this signal travels much too far. Regulators need to catch up with this technology, create limits, set standards, and provide creative and affordable means for car owners to swap a noisy signal for a quieter or silent one. Automotive sound designers should not waste precious resources creating "branded sounds" for pedestrian safety - they should work competitively to improve upon existing signals using haptic or visual feedback for lock signaling and vehicle locating technology.

Added vehicle sound should be used sparingly in shared spaces, if at all. Occasionally using an electronic tone in a parking lot to find a beige car in a sea of beige cars seems reasonable. But if automakers are to act responsibly and work towards eliminating rather than contributing further to sonic litter, they need to include clear instructions for use of any sound signal that is used for non-emergencies, including the fact that it takes only one press of a key fob to activate security.

Read about the two-tiered nature of sound signaling that some brands still use, where the affluent use an electronic tone (or no sound) while others use horn sounds.

Audible Car Alarms

We strongly encourage the auto industry to adopt silent or quieter alternatives. That stated, our initial primary focus targets horn use with routine, non-emergency functions as outlined above. But it is essential to note that at this point on a technological timeline, there is no reason to sound an audible alarm that few to none will respond to by alerting authorities. Most to all car alarm activations are false alarms, and most to all activations are ignored by those within hearing distance. There are multiple telematics technologies that come into play when the security system is tampered with, including engine immobilization, forced slow speeds, GPS tracking, and smart phone visual status reports. If audible alarms worked, there would be no auto thefts. At this time, the function of audible car alarms is to provide reassurance, but that reassurance isn't even genuine. So while elimination of audible car alarms is not our mission, it is our belief that their elimination is long overdue.

When automakers created "panic alarm" they essentially enabled car owners to activate their cars' audible car alarm for any reason by pressing a button. Like many audible features - and many so-called safety features - panic alarm was never vetted by NHTSA or any other regulatory body. The Tesla, which is the least stolen car in the US, and a few luxury cars, don't feature panic alarm, and like horn-based lock signaling, for the US and Canadian brands that feature panic alarm, the same brands and models overseas don't use the feature.

Here is an excellent history of the car alarm.

Backup Beeping

We are not advocating for elimination of backup beeping, but we do not think that backup beeping is effective, and we don't think that the technology is appropriate in ordinary passenger cars, trucks, and SUVs. Backup beeping is yet one more disruptive, ineffective, inappropriate sound signal offering a false sense of security and adding sonic litter to urban, suburban, and rural soundscapes. 33 34

And as with car alarms, there are quieter alternatives to backup beeping for occupational spheres where they are mandated. There are tens of thousands of online forums where car owners trade methods for deactivating backup beeping.

Infotainment Telematics

Once again without any vetting by NHTSA or other regulatory agencies, automakers, collaborating with opportunistic tech firms, have created technology that uses a safety signal for non-emergencies without any justification beyond convenience: honk your car's horn from your smart phone or wristwatch - from the breakfast table, or from miles away. We are opposed to this technology and do not understand the waste of human and technological resources that was invested into its creation. Actuate a warning signal from miles away that you can't hear - but someone walking, cycling, or driving by can hear? How is this justified?

It should be noted that Toyota opted to use visual telematics with this technology rather than use a horn sound. So one automaker considered future safety concerns around this boondoggle technology even as no regulatory agency did so (but Toyota cars do feature panic alarm and backup beeping).

It bears repeating: Technology is supposed to solve problems, not create more of them.

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