Wednesday, September 9, 2020

To Honk or Not To Honk at a Bicyclist

If you drive, please do not honk your horn at a person riding a bicycle, ever.

I hear it from time to time from folks I know.  They will say in an earnest and friendly tone, "I saw you on your bike.  I honked but I guess you didn't see me." 

"Oh, that was you," I'll respond, recalling the fear and/or annoyance I felt at the unwelcome toot.  "You know, you should not honk at someone on a bike," I'll say, trying to affect as gentle a tone as possible.  "It's scary to get honked at while biking."  Some seem slightly wounded.  Some get it.

On a bicycle, honks sound and feel angry and profane, the equivalent of, "Get the f*** out of my way."  That is always my go to assumption about the message being offered by the blare of a car horn.  If I turn and see someone I know waving at me, I feel relief but only after I let a moment of tension, fear and anxiety wash away.  No one likes being honked at on the road, whether in a motor vehicle or on a bike.  But for the bicyclist, the honk sounds particularly menacing.  In a car, a honk from a fellow motorist generally feels like a minimally harsh heads-up.  Even having someone lay on their horn at you generally does not feel like a threat from inside the safety of a motor vehicle.  On a bike, the feeling is very different.  Burdened with the knowledge that people on bikes are often viewed with hostility by drivers, the cyclist being honked at will immediately worry about their safety when they hear a car horn.  The honk indicates anger and aggression from a driver who, if they escalate, can quite easily run you down.  

Last week, curious as to whether other people who bike disapprove of honking as much as I do, I posed the following on Twitter:

I received several responses.  This one was fairly typical:

There were also these:

The Illinois Vehicle Code is not particularly helpful when it comes to offering drivers guidance regarding horn use around bicyclists.  The relevant Code section states, "The driver of a motor vehicle shall when reasonably necessary to insure safe operation give audible warning with his horn but shall not otherwise use such horn when upon a highway." 625 ILCS 5/12-601(a).  The phrase, "reasonably necessary to insure safe operation" is vague.  It begs the question, reasonably necessary to insure safe operation of what and for who's benefit?  Should a horn be used to ensure the safe operation of the honker's vehicle?  What about the safe operation of the vehicle/bicycle of the person being honked at?  The law offers no clarity.  However, it seems a fair interpretation that the Code prescribes horn use in rare circumstances, that is, when safety is at issue.  Section 12-601(a) does not permit horn use because a driver is in a rush and wants to pass a slower road user.  Any such use would be barred by that section.

Illinois has a section of its vehicle code meant to address harassment of bicyclists.  Section 11-703, prohibits a driver from passing, "unnecessarily close to, toward or near a bicyclist," and sets forth that three feet shall be the closest a driver may allow their vehicle to get to a person on a bike.  The section, however, makes no mention of audible harassment of or honking at a cyclist.  A review of other state vehicle laws revealed no prohibitions against honking at bicyclists.  For example, Iowa prohibits throwing any "object or substance" at a cyclist, but makes no mention of honking or other audible harassment like yelling.  The state of Louisiana and Mississippi are broader in their prohibitions.  Those states make it an offense to, "harass, taunt, or maliciously throw objects" at a person riding a bike.  A driver could harass or taunt with a vehicle horn, so these statutes arguably provide greater protection for bicyclists.

Of course, not every honk is made in anger.  In response to my Twitter inquiry I also received these replies:

A "good" honk from a driver can happen, but it is the exception to the rule.  Honking at a bicyclist will probably cause the rider fear and anxiety.  Some cyclists will naturally respond hostilely to a driver honking at them.  That is good for no one.


  1. A good fix: Horns should be as loud inside the car as they are on the outside of the car.

    1. Great idea. Use of the horn should come with a price (even if a small one) to the driver.

  2. I had the same thing happen to me as Linda A. I would have been creamed if the driver in the minivan next to me hadn't honked.

    I've also had friends honk at me. A couple of short beeps a few seconds AFTER they've passed me, and I recognize their car, no problem.


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