Honking and Remote Locks - Pointless and Preventable

Winter 2014

                    Cullen Ruff, MD
                    Associate Professor
                    Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine

Horns are purposefully designed to get our immediate attention, to cause our bodies and minds to react. Sudden, loud, jarring noises like horns induce physiologic reactions, including a surge in adrenaline, with increased heart rate and blood pressure. Our sympathetic nervous system triggers an involuntary "fight or flight" response to the perception of potential physical emergencies.

Unfortunately, horn use has gotten way out of hand, in part due to automobile manufacturers introducing the use of emergency sounds for nonemergency purposes, beginning with audible car alarms.

Evidence reveals that the majority of alarms are not triggered by actual robberies, and the vast majority of alarm soundings do not result in police notification. In essence, their existence is poorly justified. We may begrudgingly consider these unwelcome sounds as a fact of modern life, but they need not be--particularly as more effective wireless technologies become available, better able to notify authorities of a true car invasion or theft, without disturbing everyone in earshot.

A more frequent intrusion today than alarms, however, is the increasing use of horns for completely routine matters, such as locking and unlocking a car door. We have drifted from turning a key in the lock, to the silent remote lock, perhaps with a headlight flash; to an electronic chirp; to the considerably more jarring honk of the horn, crossing the physiologic threshold of comfort. It matters not to our bodies that this sound is not meant to get our attention, nor that the horn sound may be brief.

Are some people more likely to react than others? Sure. Whether their hearing is better, or their nervous systems more primed for quick response, some people will inevitably be more startled, and detest what others may consider a minor nuisance. However, research has shown that even a sleeping person who does not wake from noise still responds physiologically, experiencing alterations in sleep quality, cardiac function, and blood pressure. Our nervous and endocrine systems cannot ignore stimuli to which we are programmed to react.

Virtually all of us are adversely affected by noise to some degree. The fact that some people are less bothered by cigarette smoke or poison ivy does not mean that these exposures are not typically harmful. The same goes for noise. Whether it be effects on blood pressure and pulse, anxiety or insomnia, the potential for adverse health effects from repeated noise is real. The good news about horn honking lock alerts is that they are so preventable.

Perhaps this is why the Silence the Horns campaign is so deserving of our attention. Of all the individual and public health issues whose causes and cures are complex and elusive, this is not one of them. The fix is simple and within the realm of short-term human capacity: automakers could eliminate horn use in nonemergency, routine car functions like door locks, low tire pressure alerts, or vehicle location detection.

Silence the Horns asks not for new technology, but a reversion to that which was less disruptive but equally effective. A remote device with a quiet click and a flash of the lights is just as effective in locking a door, without waking a neighbor, startling a pedestrian, or distracting another motorist. For those who want audible reassurance, a low-decibel electronic chirp is an acceptable compromise--but not a horn.

It is an honor to support the launch of Silence the Horns. We thank people for being responsible and considerate within our local and greater communities, and praise those automakers who already avoid using horns for nonemergency functions. We now strongly encourage the rest of the auto industry to please do the same.

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