From the Comments: Lay Off the Fake Car Horns


In response to our post about our Prius/”conspicuous conservation” podcast, a reader named Fred writes in to say:

If you did an analysis on your listenership, I’m pretty sure you’d find, in common with most podcasts, that consumers of audio are more likely than not mobile. Old time radio’s image of the rocking chair next to a wireless the size of a substantial piece of furniture is outdated. With podcasts especially, people are more likely to strap on their choice of pod, and listen whilst jogging, StairMastering, cycling, commuting –- it’s a very mobile listenership.

Most podcasters realised this, and when talking travel, transport or cars in particular do not use the hackneyed, clichéed, passé and superfluous sound of a car horn. For the reason that it is unmuffled by earbuds or car windows, it comes directly into the ear and announces forcibly that you are jogging or cycling into danger.

I was cycling down the east coast of Thailand, on a straight, flat road, palm trees swinging ever-so-gently, the Gulf of Thailand just to my left, sparkling delightfully just beyond the white beach to my left, just hit a nice rhythm, got into top gear and was pretty much in the zone. My iPod was playing the “Hey Baby, Is That a Prius You’re Driving?” episode, interested in the “conspicuous conservation” concept –- when your podcast had a completely unnecessary car horn blast that shattered my peace, and very nearly shocked me into an accident. Fuck you. Don’t do that.

To which a reader named MattNYC replies:

Uh, Fred…

You’re not supposed to wear headphones –- certainly not both –- when riding. What if that horn had been real? Or a car (a nice super- quiet Prius) was behind you and you had no idea because you were oblivious to anything else?

I have to say, I see both arguments as valid. Good feedback all around. And, FWIW, the U.S. may require electric-car manufacturers to make their quiet engines noisier so that hearing-impaired pedestrians (and headphone-wearing cyclists, like Fred) will know they’re coming.


As someone who's spent his entire adult life working in radio (much of it producing imaging, where you use sound effects and the like to make something sound more full), I've found that there is very little benefit to car horns, sirens, crashes, etc. being placed in the back ground.

For instance, I doubt there were any listeners who thought, "That podcast about the cars was terrible, until the car horns were brought into it, then I liked it."

(Note that the podcast at hand is on my phone and I have not yet listened to it to make a judgement on this specific case)

Shaun G

I have instituted a ban on a children's CD we used to play in our car for our son. It's got "The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round" on it, and the song is punctuated by several real-sounding car horns. I just can't deal with it.


with regards to the headphones while driving issue, I commute about 2 hours a day and I have to podcast with headphones to keep my sanity. Always keep volume down low enough to still hear the traffic noise and after over a year, I've never had any kind of problem (or any police concerns either). It's really not a safety issue at all. Of course, one ear in & one ear out works as well.

Laura Conrad

The same argument applies to siren noises, as well.


If requiring more noise on cars go through it's the stupidest thing that could ever be done for urban dwellers. I live near a pretty busy street and would love if even a small percentage of the cars were quieter. Isn't that progress?


In my city there are regular cases where people have been killed by the mass-transit trains when they walked across the rails while absorbed in their music. Granted, this can happen with book-readers too, but generally some people don't seem to pay much attention to their surroundings and it can get them killed.

Perhaps this is non-preventable, and we should let natural selection take its course. But perhaps all audio needs to include regular loud car-horn blasts - ha ha, THAT would be irritating! And a nice fascist solution.

Eric M. Jones

Yes, it would be unexpectedly good sense not to use car horns and ambulance sounds in audio presentations that might be used in a car, or phones ringing at home. or fire smells in Smell-O-Vision theaters...or vibrating theater seats in that "The Tingler" movie.

I too, recently heard a car horn on the radio that almost got me into an accident. The Ninth Circle of Hell reserved for people who think this is acceptable.

Dan Aris

Not supposed to wear headphones?

Unless you've got noise-cancel headphones, or the in-ear type that block out all outside sound, I have never been able to understand why one should not wear headphones while driving. The only way I can see to be able to block out enough sound be a cause for concern is if you crank up the volume loud enough to nearly deafen yourself.

And it's not like you can't do that with the stereo anyway.

If you shouldn't be wearing headphones, then it seems to me you shouldn't be listening to the radio loudly, either.

(Disclaimer: I have worn headphones on my commute nearly every day for the past 7 years. Only time anyone even suggested that I shouldn't was when a family member who's a lawyer in another state saw me with them on. Got a speeding ticket once with them on—the cop never batted an eye at them.)

larry english

don;t ride with earphones!



If your earbuds are blocking out ambient noise, then you have the volume too loud and are damaging your hearing. If you are on the road, make sure you can still hear the traffic around you. If you are at home and want to drown out noise, don't use earbuds, use the big headphones.
Also, I totally agree with Fred. So many times I have been sent into a momentary panic by a car horn or a siren coming from the radio. It’s just dangerous and irresponsible. I hope you take Fred’s advice to heart, and while you’re at it, tell every other radio producer you know.

Joshua Northey

I'll repost what I just posted there...

MattNYC, I have biked maybe 30,000 miles in headphones, they are no safety risk and are on low enough that I can hear the cars when they are still over a hundred feet away. I haven’t had a single problem with not hearing a car.

I do agree completely with the idiocy of putting car horns in podcasts on the radio or anywhere else that they might be heard while driving/biking/et cetera.


There is a great "Curb Your Enthusiasm" episode where Larry David gets into it with another driver because of an AAMCO commercial. The old jingle went something like "Double A [honk honk] MCO". If I remember the episode correctly, David thought the guy behind him honked, he turned around and said something, wherein the guy rammed him and drove off.

Wil Random

MatNYC's "counter" argument only serves to reinforce Fred's. Fred is simply advising Freakonomics not to include ambient danger signals in their podcasts. That's a valid point (one I'm actually surprised has to be made!) whether or not you're wearing headphones while cycling or driving. And clearly Fred's concern illustrates that even with headphones on, he's being sensitive to perceived warning signals around him.

These two arguments speak to very different points and aren't countering each other.

Thanks for the warning, Fred. I'm on a roadtrip and downloaded this podcast last night for today's drive. Instead, I'll listen to something else.


I stopped listening to talk radio and began listening to podcasts on my commute because there was a rather common commercial at the time with a loudly approaching siren. I found I was far safer with headphones at a reasonable volume than being nervous about a siren multiple times during my commute, or tuning sirens out entirely which I was doing by the second day.


I listen to podcasts while driving, and I have to say that I found your gratuitous insertion of the sound of car horns very annoying. Every time you had that sound, I had to look around if it came from the outside and I was doing something wrong.


Given that "comments ... generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive," it seems odd that you published Fred's letter in its entirety, including him telling you, "F**k you." I must be getting old. I always thought telling someone, "F**k you!" was pretty much the gold standard of abusive comments. Does writing, "F**k you." lessen the abusiveness?


A similar danger is cars and trucks that honk every time the doors are locked or unlocked, thus giving repeated false alarms. Fortunately this is generally illegal and can be turned off; unfortunately, horn laws aren't enforced.


I one time had a near-heart attack when, while driving along contentedly, the radio decided to alert me that it was Friday by sounding something that sounded like an out-of-control semi about four inches from my bumper.

They had evoked road rage in me on a nearly empty highway!

But in truth, it could have caused an accident. Think of someone swerving, thinking an accident was imminent. Or slamming on their breaks as an unfortunate reaction.

bonnie lynn

I drive an hour each way to work, so I pretty much almost exclusively only listen to music and podcasts in my car, sans earphones of course. I hate when anything I listen to in my car includes any sort of sound meant to be a warning signal when driving, including car horns, and especially sirens. I think it is hazardous, as I naturally respond by looking to see where the noise came from. This can be distracting, at the very least, if not completely disorienting, as I'm trying to figure out what's going on. While this distraction may only last a second or two, that is certainly enough time to potentially cause an accident. I agree that it would be best to exclude these sound effects from future podcasts.


I'll stop wearing headphones when drivers stop driving with the radio on or windows up. I can hear cars passing, sirens blaring, and birds chirping, which I couldn't always hear in the car. If anyone (cyclist or otherwise) gets hit by a car because they can't hear it, it's because they failed to look before changing behaviors (turning, changing lanes, etc) or because the driver is the one who was oblivious. Why should a cyclist be responsible for the behavior of those behind them?