By July 8, 2010

Random Motorcycling Tip #17: On Using the Horn as an Active Response

So you’ve done all you can. You identified a potentially bad driver and adjusted your speed appropriately. You changed your lane position. You made sure there was a clear exit path (or a semi-clear one that you could blast through in an emergency). You are doing the Admiral Akbar and have one eye on the threat and one eye on traffic in front of you.

Then you start getting more nervous. The person is talking on their mobile phone with their left hand. They aren’t looking at their left mirror and aren’t moving their head. Their car is coming up to a semi truck, and you are worried that they are going to change lanes due to the Spring Hypothesis.

Without looking, without any signals — that the driver made consciously, anyway — the car is coming into your lane.

What do you do now?

Get Active.

Thanks to adjusting your lane position, you’ve given yourself enough space (and therefore time) to start making an active response. An active response is when you do something to get the driver of the other vehicle’s attention.

Example of an active response is:

  • using your horn
  • rapidly adjusting your speed in order to get attention
  • weaving to get attention (the “Butterfly Dance”) — this works best when someone is at an intersection but I use it when approaching a traffic jam

Other non recommended active responses include:

  • kicking or hitting the vehicle
  • popping a wheelie
  • Revving the engine to make a lot of noise– this seems to be done by “loud pipes” riders
  • cutting them off

An active response is different from a passive response: a passive response is something you do that only affects you. The driver has little to no chance of noticing these things.

Examples include:

  • altering your speed in anticipation of an incident
  • changing your lane position
  • changing lanes to avoid a merge, on-ramp or off-ramp
  • circumventing a potential incident by using your speed and mobility to avoid threatening vehicles

Chances are that other motorists won’t notice any passive responses. If they do, it won’t be in relation to avoiding an accident.

Using Your Horn to Get Noticed

I’ve noticed that thumbing the horn and holding it down isn’t very effective. I am not 100% why, but I have a theory. A motorist who is going to merge into you isn’t paying attention. They may be listening to music at high volume, talking on their phone, attending to a baby and eating, possibly all at the same time. Adding a long, solitary note isn’t going to get the job done.

I modulate my horn, and this seems to work very well. I typically do two or three short bursts and then two long holds. Beep-beep-beep beeeeeeeep-beeeeeeeeeeep if you will.

As I pass by someone creeping into my lane, I watch their head and their hands. The first two short beeps normally get their attention, but they don’t know where the honking is coming from. The long blasts give the driver enough time to focus on me and get back over in their lane.

The modulating horn technique requires a few things on your part to work:

  • You need to honk early. I start as soon as the car tire hits the edge of the white divided lines in the road.
  • You need to have already adjusted your lane position. If you are in the center of the lane and the tire starts coming over, it’s probably too late for you to do a full modulation. If you’ve crept over to the outside third of the lane that might give you enough time and space for the driver to recognize WTF is going on.
  • You need to honk often. Yes, this means you will honk at a few people who are just shitty drivers, but is that really a “mistake?” Better to be safe than sorry. No one has ever chased me down because I honked at them. I think this is another reason to modulate. A short “beep beep beep” seems more like “hey I’m here please don’t kill me” and less like “if I had an air hammer and a turkey baster you’d be a bloody mess.”

Give it a try the next time you’re out on the road. You might even want to practice ahead of time to get your own style of modulation down. And if you’re really inventive, maybe you could rig your horn up to modulate on a single press. If you figure it out, let me know — I might buy one from you.

Ride safe.

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Posted in: motorcycling

6 Comments on "Random Motorcycling Tip #17: On Using the Horn as an Active Response"

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  1. Shirley Kelly says:

    OUTSTANDING POST! I think you may have help save lives. I had a incident once with a motorist moving into my lane. I laid on my horn for dear life. Eventually, I got the attention of the female passenger and she scream at the driver. The driver was listening to really loud music. I did not have a backup plan. Thank you for posting this information. I’ll be sure to practice how to use the modulating horn technique before heading back out.

  2. Brice says:

    I’ve taken off a mirror, honked, kicked in a door, pounded on their window. Of these, the honking is certainly the safest and most effective. Everything else scares the other driver so bad that you’ll never know what they are going to do.

  3. ed says:

    Fantastic advice. My wife just about got clipped this past weekend on the PCH by some schmuck that decided he was just going to merge and if anyone was there, they had better just move over. I’ll admit my first thought was to get next to the guy at the next light and just kick the car, but reason took over.

    Riding is certainly a challenge when cagers pay nor more attention to you than they do a tin can rolling across the road.

  4. cap'n says:

    I did this last week. Driver was waiting to pull out into my lane as I approached a non-lighted / signed intersection. He glanced my way, but WAY too quickly… I knew he hadn’t seen me so I chipped the horn a few times just in case. And as you mention, he had no clue where that sound was coming from. The problem is, he thought the person BEHIND him did it, so he scooted out into the road, blocking 90% of my lane, with me now about 60 feet from his door. Then I laid on the horn fully as I braked (to the point of mildly locking up the rear and almost locking up the front), then saw my exit (around his hood, right on the center line) and took it. I just let off the brakes, rolled the throttle back on, regained traction, veered left, and went about a foot in front of his hood ornament at about 15 mph. His eyes looked like dinner plates.

    The horn helped AND hurt me there, I think. It got him to jump out into my lane (or maybe it didn’t, maybe he was just going for it), and it then got him to stop fully when he heard it again.

  5. DrFaulken says:

    Hey cap’n, glad to hear you escaped this incident unharmed. Like you, I often wonder if sounding the horn will spook someone into doing something stupid. I have had similar experiences when people are otherwise occupied, such as talking to passengers on on their mobile phones.

    I have to weight the advantage of signaling my position with the disadvantages of spooking them.

    It sounds like you used your horn in combination with a series of other survival techniques (the most important being anticipation) to escape. I am glad you had the presence of mind to do something like this, instead of relying on the horn to be a “magic bullet.”

    Good job, thanks for sharing, and keep the shiny side up.

  6. Alastair says:

    IMHO the reason car drivers do not respond to the beep beep of a motorcycle horn is that the standard motorcycle horn goes beep beep. This is why all my machines have twin snail horns driven by a relay. HONK HONK When they visibly jump and drop their cellphone, you know it is loud enough.