Why do people honk in tunnels? A Smoky Mountain native weighs in
Growing up in East Tennessee and in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, I’ve noticed that tunnel honking is quite common. I’ve also noticed that for some of my family members, it’s so Pavlovian that they don’t even realize they’re doing it anymore.
For example, one time I was riding through a tunnel in the backseat of a car with my family. My brother-in-law – who is the last person on the planet to ever be superstitious – gave a little car honk on his way through the tunnel along the Spur in the Smokies. When someone else in the car asked him why he honked, he didn’t even realize that he did. It’s simply second nature for some of us.
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RELATED VIDEO: Why Do People Honk in Tunnels?
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Why do people honk in tunnels?
Essentially, honking is a friendly tradition rooted in necessity (more on this later). But I’ve noticed that it can confuse a few out-of-towners. I’ve even seen a few posts on social media from folks online thinking that they had a flat tire – or a missing headlight – because everyone was “honking at them.” So if you stumbled upon this article because you’re also scratching your head about what could be wrong with your car, don’t call the mechanic yet.
If you ask a local why they honk in a tunnel, you’ll get a variety of answers: It’s fun. It brings good luck. It’s friendly. It scares away the bats. Their parents always did it. Maybe they like the way it sounds. Sometimes it is superstition. After all, evil spirits don’t like loud noises, do they?
Here’s the real reason people honk in tunnels
But here’s the real reason. Tunnel honking began as a necessary safety precaution. As many know, single-lane tunnels were commonplace throughout the South for years (and still exist on many mountain backroads today). Honking in those tunnels was a way to alert drivers on the other side to your presence.
This is evidenced by an article in the Citizen Times that talks about the Beaucatcher Tunnel in Asheville, on the North Carolina side of the mountain range. The article talks about how many bridges and mountain cuts back in the day were only a single lane wide. So during those times, honking your horn was encouraged by law to avoid the occurrence of two vehicles suddenly facing off inside a dark tunnel or around a sharp mountain curve. Today, it is, shall we say, less encouraged by law (more on that below).
Regardless, it should come as no surprise that Southerners have largely upheld this longstanding tradition even when unnecessary as a way of paying homage to their culture.
Is honking your horn in a tunnel against the law?
Technically – please put your pitchforks down – Tennessee Code 55-9-201 does state that it is “unlawful … for any person at any time to use a horn otherwise than as a reasonable warning or to make any unnecessary or unreasonably loud or harsh sound by means of a horn or other warning device.” Also, you may notice signs that ban honking, especially during construction. In these cases, honking can startle or hurt the hearing of construction crew members. Especially in these cases, it’s best to follow the rules.
Do you honk in tunnels? What is your reason? Let me know in the comments below.