Superstition or safety: Why do Southerners honk in tunnels

Tunnel
The tunnel on the Parkway just north of Gatlinburg

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It’s the age old question: Why do people honk when driving through tunnels? In East Tennessee, we learn to honk in tunnels just as we learn how to walk with two feet.

We learn it at a young age, and we don’t question it too much. It’s just what we do. 

It’s so Pavlovian to some of us that we don’t even realize we’re doing it anymore.

One time I was riding through a tunnel in the backseat of a car with my family. My brother-in-law, the last person on the planet to ever be superstitious, started honking on his way through. 

“Why did you honk?” my sister (his wife) asked after we passed. 

“You told me to!” he responded.  

“No I didn’t!” she said.

“… I’m not sure why I do it.” 

It’s because he’s from Tennessee, that’s why. 

Why do people honk in tunnels?

I’ve had a few out-of-town friends ask me why people are honking in the tunnel along the Spur.

I’ve even seen a few posts from folks online thinking that they had a flat tire – or a missing headlight – because everyone was “honking at them.”

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 just yet. The honking is a friendly tradition.

If you ask a local why they honk in a tunnel, you’ll get a variety of answers: 

It’s fun.

It’s lucky.

It’s friendly.

It’s superstition.

I like the way it sounds.

It scares away the bats. 

My parents always did it.

Do you want to risk tunnel trolls getting you? They HATE loud sounds. 

Okay, here’s the real reason we honk in tunnels 

I turned to my friend google, and it turns out that this whole ordeal may not be super-specific to us Tennesseans. 

An article in The Guardian reported that there’s a tunnel in Wellington, New Zealand, where local officials have attempted, unsuccessfully, to ban honking in the Mount Victoria Tunnel. 

The reason people honk in this tunnel, according to the article, is mostly due to city-wide superstition.

Some motorists believe that blasting your horn will ward off evil spirits. Others believe it acknowledges the memory of a teenage girl whose body was buried at the site of the tunnel a year before it opened in 1931. 

The memory of the young girl is said to be the main reason reason behind the honking tradition, although local historians say there is no proof of that. 

A little closer to home, and perhaps the theory that makes the most sense for us, has more to do with safety than superstition.

An article in the Citizen Times states that tunnel honking began as a safety precaution. This article specifically talks about Beaucatcher Tunnel in Asheville, N.C. 

According to an official with the Traffic Training Center, most tunnels, 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 around a mountain curve. 

Today, it is, shall we say, less encouraged by law.  

The Road to Nowhere in Bryson City, North Carolina
The tunnel on the Road to Nowhere in Bryson City, N.C. (photo by Kim McGrew/Shutterstock)

Is honking your horn in a tunnel against the law? 

Technically – please put your pitch forks 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.” 

To spare you the legal jargon, North Carolina more or less has the same law. 

But, just as the case in New Zealand, attempts to put an end to tunnel honking would likely be futile. 

This is moonshine country, after all. 

Read Also: Why the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is free and others are not 

Where to find tunnels around the Smoky Mountains

The main tunnel around the Smokies is the one you’ll find along the Spur, just north of Gatlinburg, Tenn., along the Parkway (US 441). More tunnels can be found around the “other side” of the Smokies in North Carolina: 

  • Rattlesnake Mountain Tunnel (Cherokee, N.C.) 
  • Sherrill Cove Tunnel (Cherokee, N.C.) 
  • Big Witch Tunnel (Cherokee, N.C.) 
  • Lickstone Ridge Tunnel (Maggie Valley, N.C.) 
  • Bunches Bald Tunnel (Maggie Valley, N.C.) 
  • Road to Nowhere Tunnel (Bryson City, N.C.) 

Read Also: Road to Nowhere: The dam road that was never completed in Bryson City 

Above all else, remember to drive safely, y’all. Beep beep!

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10 Comments

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

  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.

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

  4. We did it because the kids always got a kick out of it when we drove thru the Smokies.

  5. 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

  6. 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

  7. 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.

  8. 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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