Car Language


This is a picture taken on a bike adventure a few weeks back.

Just after I pulled out of the parking lot at work today and into the road, a friend honked her car horn and passed me with a friendly wave.

That got me to thinking about the intricacies of the spoken language of vehicles. In a typical week of biking, I get honked at by cars (or rather by their drivers) five to ten times. All of the honks directed toward me fall into two categories.

The Friendly Honk
The overwhelming majority of times a car sounds its horn, it is simply someone I know, saying, “Hi!” to me. My current record is four friendly honks in ten miles. It always makes me smile to get this kind of interaction.

The Angry/Irritated Blare
Sometimes I am blasted with a loud resounding honk by a driver who is clearly not happy with me for some reason or another. Thankfully, these instances are very rare.

There is another type of sound a vehicle has used to get my attention, The Honk of Impending Doom . Which is also know as, “Please get off the road, or I may accidently smash you”. Warning other road users of danger is why car horns were invented, if my hunch is correct. But the meaning behind this honk is the same as the angry blare. Both drivers want me off the road, only difference is why they want me to yield to them.

You would think that since cars are telling me, either, “Hi!” or “GET OFF THE ROAD!!!!!”, it would be easy for me to differentiate between the two. Nope. Car language confuses me, in many ways, all the time. This is how.

The most common position for people to greet me with a friendly honk is when they coming up directly behind me. No matter how gentle of a sound it is, it always startles me and I probably jump embarrassingly high into the air.

The Loud Friendly Honk
Some cars seem to only have a single decibel setting when they honk, and that setting is very loud! I assume the driver is angry at me until they pass and I see a friendly smile and wave.

The Soft Angry Honk
Once I heard a car honk and turned to wave but my hand froze in mid air when I was stared down by a red-faced gentleman. If you are mad at me, can you at least sound mad?

Intersection Confusion
When I enter an intersection, I feel very vulnerable. I am also on full alert-I don’t expect cars to see or yield to me-it is up to me to make sure I get through safely. So anytime a car honks while I am crossing an intersection I always think there is danger or someone is objecting to my handling of the situation. It’s neither. Every single time I have heard a car honk at me while in an intersection I have later discovered that it was someone trying to say hello.

The Zero Response Time Honk
When someone honks at me, I like to smile and wave at them. Unfortunately, due to my less-than-perfect reflexes and the speed at which cars pass me, I often miss my opportunity. Then, later in the week, a friend will say, “I honked at you the other day but you didn’t even notice.” Oops.

The Not-For-You Honk
Because people in their cars often honk at me, I can easily fall into the trap of thinking that all car honking revolves around me and my bike. But I have discovered, to my amazement, that sometimes cars honk at other cars or pedestrians or even animals. When it comes to car language, I need to remember that is it not all about me.

So what was my conclusion to this fascinating study of how I frequently misunderstand car language? There is none. Halfway through my commute home I was distracted by falling snowflakes and any thoughts of cars were banished from my mind.

20 thoughts on “Car Language

  1. I’m thinking the tone of the honk will vary, depending on where you are. If I’m on a busy street, the honk will be aggressive, with a temper. But if it’s a weekend, where the traffic is not that bad, it’s more of a “hi, how are you. Have a great day” type of honk.

    I’m thinking I get more of the “get out of the road” honk, since I commute around Silicon Valley.


  2. I’m not fluent in Horn either. Car drivers apparently think I am. Unfortunately, I normally assume the worst and don’t always have the most appropriate response. Working OK n that one. My goal is to always blow a kiss, but I’m a complete failure on that one.


  3. I don’t believe I’ve ever used the horn in my car. Tomorrow I’ll try it just to see, but not at a cyclist. I rarely see cyclists in November around here. Anyway, I’ll practice my horn technique. Over the summer I saw two cyclists with whistles hung around their neck. I thought that was a good idea.


    • I’ve hardly ever used my car’s horn either – it baffles me how quickly some people can press it if someone nips out in front of them, like pressing their horn happens quicker than dabbing the brake to give someone more space.


      • On the rare occasion that I do get an aggressive honk, I don’t do anything, partially because they speed by before I even have a chance to respond 🙂

        Maybe the drivers who are quick to use the horn rather then the brake have never ridden a bike before and don’t know how effective leg movements can be!

        Liked by 1 person

    • Wouldn’t it be nice if there was some sort of pre-warning for car horns? In a way, it makes it even more startling for you, since you aren’t used to being honked at that much!

      Maybe if we asked someone to trail behind us in a car and constantly honk at us we would eventually get desensitized! (And they would get a ticket for disturbing the peace, haha)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Friendly honks are usually more like a blip. Sometimes people honk or wave at me, and yes, I get the “you didn’t wave back” a few days later… sometimes I do wave back if I recognise who it is, but my wave is usually lacking the extravagance needed for them to see it in their rear-view mirror, like, I will keep my hand on my handlebars and just raise my fingers out to the side 😀 If it’s an angry honk then I usually just shrug.


  5. This is the first glossary I’ve seen for “Car Language” 😉
    I’d like to add another entry…
    The Accidental Honk: when the driver leans on the horn completely unintentionally, frightening themselves and everyone around them.


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