Taryn Hawkins watches, and seethes, when a driver in front of her sits still at a green light, fiddling with a cellphone. She wants to honk. But she wonders if she should.
She hates honking, because she hates being honked at. “My heart races, I start to sweat and apologize profusely without making eye contact,” the 29-year-old said.
While “toot-toots” and “hooooonks” are part of the sound fabric of cities such as New York and Chicago, Minnesota drivers rarely sound off with their horns — even in the face of the most egregious, selfish driving maneuvers.
With construction projects, traffic congestion and commute times in the Twin Cities at an all-time high, and with nearly 5 million vehicles on Minnesota roads, why aren’t more people honking? Driving experts point to the cultural quirks and common values that make us uniquely Minnesotan.
When you’re Minnesota Nice, honking comes with internal conflict.
“Honking feels hostile in Minnesota,” said researcher Nichole Morris, who studies driver behavior at the Human First Lab at the University of Minnesota. “In other places, it’s totally acceptable to honk and nobody gets too bent out of shape about it.”
Elsewhere, for example, it’s not uncommon for drivers to honk as they approach a sidewalk from an alley to alert pedestrians of their presence. In Minnesota, a similar honk is more likely to result in a passive-aggressive confrontation, the middle finger, or worse.
Morris said Minnesotans’ sensitivity to horn honking is based on cultural norms passed down from ancestors — even the ones who didn’t have cars.
“We have quite a few people here with Nordic European ancestry, and it’s just not acceptable to rage on other people the way it might be in Mediterranean or some Asian countries,” Morris said. “And honking is an act of rage.”
Drivers interviewed for this story have a range of opinions about whether and when to honk, but all agree that honking itself makes Minnesotans shrink shamefully into their seats.
“Anywhere else in the U.S., honking is pretty normal,” said 43-year-old Arizona native Christie Rachelle, who lives in Burnsville. “Minnesota is too ‘nice’ to honk. A horn is simply a last resort.”
But when pushed to their limits, some Minnesotans will honk.
“Most of the time people use their horn to release some emotion,” said Mike Torkelson, an instructor at AAA Minneapolis Driving School. “Usually, it’s frustration.”
A new national study shows honking is the third most popular way (behind tailgating and yelling) that drivers express anger or annoyance, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. The same report found that drivers living in the Northeast were significantly more likely to yell, honk or gesture angrily than people in other parts of the country.
Still, due to the perception of hostility inherent in the honk in Minnesota, many local drivers fear that honking might bring retaliation from another driver.
“The only time I honk is if I am trying to avoid an accident,” said Tanner LePage, 25, of East Bethel. “To honk for any other reason is dangerous. One honk can get you killed in a road rage accident.”
In a highly publicized 2016 case, a 39-year-old woman was shot four times after she honked at a driver who cut her off in a congested construction zone in Minneapolis.
Not everyone appreciates the silence of Minnesota roads. Colleen Larsen calls the state’s honking habits “unfortunate.” The Chicago native thinks Minnesota drivers could benefit from the reminder of a good honk now and then.
“We all honk at each other in Chicago because we all need to be reminded from time to time that we have a job to do on the road: Pay attention,” she said.
Honking sparks tension between Minnesota natives and transplants. Some locals worry that honk-happy newcomers will change the local beeping culture.
“People who move here don’t understand that we don’t honk,” said Leah Lundgren Spring, 50, of Eagan. “I worry that our quiet streets and highways will turn into what I experienced while visiting Boston. … Talk about culture shock on the roads.”
After living in South Korea for seven years and traveling to several Asian countries, Sonja Freeman got used to honking. Drivers honked to get other drivers’ attention for safety reasons, not out of aggression.
“I’m not offended by honks, but I don’t readily honk in Minnesota, because I know how it makes others feel,” said the 35-year-old Richfield resident. “It is perceived too negatively here.”
Minnesota’s lack of honking could be explained by Statute 169.68. It states that drivers should use the horn to avoid a crash, but not unnecessarily, such as announcing your arrival.
Are Minnesotans more law-abiding than, say, New Yorkers? Probably not. Honking is illegal there, too (although laws are rarely enforced).
Despite what transplants say, there is at least one upside to a non-honking culture. Some Asian countries have banned honking because of noise pollution.
No car wars
One thing Minnesotans might hate more than honking is being honked at. Light rail operator Peter Mooers said he runs into this situation regularly.
“I often honk my horn, which is loud for a reason, to get people’s attention, and sometimes save their lives,” he said. “Their response? I get flipped off, yelled at and just stared at.”
Even drivers who follow the Morse code handbook of honking (there’s a difference between a tap honk and a lean honk) say the friendliness behind their beeps falls short.
“I’ve seen people get really mad with a gentle use of a horn,” Torkelson said. “Maybe we’re just more sensitive, but I’m fine with the amount of honking as it is, maybe even a little bit less.”
Sharon Gehrman-Driscoll agrees. As the director for Minnesotans for Safe Driving, she says the horn should not be used as “a tool to belt out your frustrations.”
The best way to handle a honk? “Ignore it,” she said. “To me, it’s like engaging in a little car war, and we don’t need that.”
Back at the green light, what happens when Hawkins finally grows tired of the cellphone-distracted driver?
“I do the little beep-beep,” she said. “I have to be caught in a very specific mood — bad, very bad — to honk with strong emotion.”