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The Real Reason People Honk in Tunnels is Not What You Think

bote mountain tunnel along laurel creek road

Smoky Mountain visitors love to honk their way through local tunnels including Bote Mountain Road Tunnel (pictured) and Spur Road Tunnel (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

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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.

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?

spur tunnel
Honking is extremely common inside this famous tunnel along the Spur in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (photo by Kenneth Sponsler/shutterstock.com)

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.

sign with construction cone that says no honking
You may see signs that ask you to refrain from honking, especially when there is a construction crew nearby (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

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. View the web story version of this article here.

Have a question or comment about something in this article? Contact our staff here. You may also contact our editorial team at editor@thesmokies.com (preferred) or call 865-505-0648.

23 thoughts on “The Real Reason People Honk in Tunnels is Not What You Think”

  1. Oh wow! Loved this article. I have always blasted my horn coming through the Gatlinburg tunnel

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  2. I honk because it reminds me of being a kid in the back seat of a ’54 Olds and begging my dad to honk the horn, just because we loved the sound of it.

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  3. Grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania. We have lots of tunnels. You honked your horn because it was fun. That’s it.

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  4. I just remember being a kid and my parents would always honk when we would go thru a tunnel. Someone in the family had to carry it on to the next generation and I guess that someone just do happens to be me. Honk Honk

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  5. We do it going through the one lane tunnels to let cars one the other side know you are coming through, especially with the ones that had a slight curve where you could not see other end

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  6. I remember my grandfather and my dad always blowing the horn. So I always did it for my children and now they do it for theirs. It’s just tradition.

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  7. I’ve been going to TN on vacation for many years. Heard the honking, seemed like fun, so I started doing it. Last trip there, my grandkids started telling me to honk as soon as we started thru it.

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  8. I live in Maryville but grew up in Minneapolis. We have the Lowry Hill Tunnel that carries the I94 freeway – 3 lanes each way – through a wide curve under the city. And we honk! Especially when it isn’t that busy. No superstitions – is fun to hear it echo. When we went to Cades Cove recently, of course we honked in the tunnel!

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  9. I always beep my whistle in tunnels! Never knew there was a story behind it! We also hold our breath!😂

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  10. My DADDY started that tradition of going to the mountains back in the 50’s.. wehad to take a trip while everyone was still at home..FIRST TRIP—WE stayed in Townsend at that small motel–next day we went to the cove and DADDY blowed the horn in the tunnel!!WE LOVED IT!! AND HAVE DONE IT EVERY TRIP SINCE…LOVE MY DADDY!!

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  11. I’m 42 now I live in pigeon forge area there are tunnels all around and I honk everytime if I’m not driving I say honk when we go through the tunnels and I don’t know what makes me do it but damn if it don’t make me smile everytime I say blow the heck outta that thing we’re else you gonna use it…

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  12. I’m from here in East Tennessee! My family has always honked in tunnels. It’s just what you do! The honk we always do is, ‘Shave and a hair cut…’ and then we would wait for a fellow driver to honk, ‘Two bits.’
    It’s just fun and lets you know who is friendly. We are southern. We are always having fun.

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  13. Ive always honked in the tunnels! Now when my grandaughter goes to the Smokies with me, as soon as she sees the tunnels, she hollars out “honk in the tunnels, Nana!” Its just so fun & I love the sound. Its tradition now.

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  14. @ shari, depends on the car… 😉 i have a 89 mustang gt, so yes, i rev the ponies, and i would guess during the rod run in pigeon forge there is a lot of reving thru those tunnels… 😉

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  15. Brings back childhood memories! My Mom would never allow my Dad not to honk thru the Smoky mountains. LOL. I carried the tradition over with my son. Now we do it (son is adult now) each time we head to Cherokee together. I told him it’s good luck at the casino. I always win money when I’ve honked in each tunnel. He’s witnessed it so he’s a believer now. I don’t hear him say….Mom ? Why do you have to do that every time? He knows now. Any trip that I’ve missed a honk in even one tunnel…. I don’t come home a winner.

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