What I learned on my Hawaiian vacation

Hawaiian drivers don’t blow their horns. Why not? And is there any way to get there from here?

Sorry for the hiatus in posting; I’m just back from three exhausting days of work in Honolulu and three even more exhausting days of recreation on the Big Island.

I saw lots of impressive stuff, including a judge who had figured out a way to keep probationers in line and out of jail and a volcano spilling rivers of lava into the ocean.


But more awe-inspiring still was something I didn’t see, or rather didn’t hear. Overoptimism on the part of a taxi dispatcher led me to spend twenty-five workday-afternoon minutes on a moderately busy streetcorner in downtown Honolulu, and not a single automobile horn sounded. Indeed, I didn’t hear a true Los Angeles-style blast of automotive rage in six days in-state, including two bad traffic jams, one at rush hour in Honolulu and the other created by road construction on the Big Island.

It’s not hard to make up stories explaining this: Hawaii’s obviously potent norms of cooperation and non-confrontation, summed up as the “aloha spirit” must be part of the explanation, and tipping effects must be another part. (Where horn-blowing is rare, it’s more likely to be punished both formally and informally; where it’s common, the risks to the horn-blower are much slighter.)

Here’s a harder problem: Would it be possible to convert a high-horn-blowing city into a low-horn-blowing city, and if so what would it cost and how long would it take? It seems to me that even rather substantial costs would be well worth paying. I found the silence, once I’d noticed it, almost eerie, but I promise you I’d be willing to get used to it.

Footnote No, the photo isn’t mine, but thanks for the compliment. It’s uncredited on the usgs website where I found it.

Update A reader reports that well-publicized $350 fines for horn-blowing seem to have reduced its incidence markedly in New York. Does anyone have data?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

19 thoughts on “What I learned on my Hawaiian vacation”

  1. Im actually not at all surprised by the results the HOPE program is having. A dozen violations in previous programs before you're sent back to jail? I was under the impression probation was the second chance and figured the system has always been one violation and you're gone.
    Also, as a non-native Los Angelean I've always been subconsciously aware of the constant honking for any reason. I can't count the number of times I've been honked at by people without the right of way.

  2. For you, you could convert your existance from high-horn reality to low-horn reality simply by moving north to the reasonable half of the state.
    I currently live in Boston where I'd be estatic with a conversion to a high-horn city from a utterly predictable excessivly high horn city. The only thing I could possibly imagine would help would be if each Red Sox player personally stated on TV and radio that each horn blast would result in a victory for the Yankees…that might work.

  3. I suspect public executions would work pretty well. I doubt anything else would.

  4. Move to Seattle, land of the "patient" driver. Not that it matters much, what with the helicopters, and jetliners overhead every 40 seconds.

  5. Horns are over-rated… unless you're a goat.
    Seriously, I haven't used mine in years. Perhaps because I am not a goat.

  6. Concerning horns – I spent a week in Paris last October and in the entire week heard people honk only THREE or FOUR times. When I first visited Paris 30 years ago, the incidence of honking was a hundred times greater.
    The morale: it is possible to build a kinder, gentler society. Let's get going.

  7. "I suspect public executions would work pretty well. I doubt anything else would."
    Posted by Bruce Moomaw
    That might be worth trying, but let's do a pilot program. If your car alarm goes off, and there's no damage to your car, summary auto execution – the car is crushed immediately, with no appeal. The car owner pays the cost of doing so.
    I bet that the sound of car alarms would be a thing of the past in one week, and that it'd take skilled statistical analysis (or John Lott) to find an increase in the auto theft rate.

  8. "I currently live in Boston where I'd be estatic with a conversion to a high-horn city from a utterly predictable excessivly high horn city. The only thing I could possibly imagine would help would be if each Red Sox player personally stated on TV and radio that each horn blast would result in a victory for the Yankees…that might work."
    Posted by dave
    Use of one's horn, when not in a provably life-or-limb-threatening situation, would be punishable by mandatory wearing of a 'I (heart) NY' t-shirt for one month. Second offense – wearing of a 'Red Sox Sux – Go Yankees!' t-shirt for one month. Third offense – both slogans (front and back), for one year.
    Boston police would be issued videocams to document the offences, and would be paid a $1,000 bonus for each offense. This would eliminate horn-blowing within a month.
    Of course, the side-effects of the dictatorship which would be necessary to implement it would possibly outweigh the benefits…

  9. Barry, the crushing is too much trouble, and it could take a long time for the car to be towed to the crusher (or for some sort of portable crusher to arrive). I've long proposed simply making it legal to vandalize cars whose alarms are going off. It punishes the offender and gives the victims (neighbors) an outlet for their alarm-induced rage.

  10. Mark–
    Do whatever you want elsewhere but please don't try to turn Manhattan into a low horn-blowing place. Those annoying racketmakers are the only thing that keeps Gotham's streets safe!
    (There are game theoretic reasons for this)

  11. For a real explanation of the no-honk phenom in Hawaii, I suggeat a reading of Hunter Thompson's classic "Curse of Lono", in which he recounts several stories of angry Samoan and Hawaiian drivers doing unspeakable violence to clueless tourists. A honk of the horn in Hawaii is really considered a huge affront and unacceptable rudeness and is the best way to get a "beef" going with complete strangers.

  12. Mark,
    You may not have noticed it, but kaama'aina (natives and long-time residents of the islands) have a different attitude towards time. There's a word in Hawaiian Creole English, "bimeby" (derived from by-and-by) that sums it up nicely.
    Things take as long as they take, and there's no point in getting stressed about it. That attitude seems to seep across into visitors as well.
    We don't have much honking here in Las Cruces, and I'm always disturbed when I have to go into LA and hear all the honking going on.

  13. When I was growing up in L.A. in the '60s and early '70s, poeple never used their horns. In fact, L.A. was known for the courtesy of its drivers. I've only visited since '75, but the change in driver behaviour (like a lot of the changes in L.A. since then) is appalling. A friend of mine used to joke that it was because of all the New Yorkers who moved there. (I say this as someone who lived happily in noisy Manhattan for 11 years.)

  14. Bruce Moomaw's comment expresses a familiar viewpoint, but one which I'm convinced is wrong.
    As long as sanctions are quick and reliable, they don't have to be severe. That's the point of the HOPE program; you don't need to hit someone with a hammer to change his behavior. Really consistent sanctioning isn't just crime-minimizing, it's sanctions-minimizing, because when people stop offending no sanctions need be employed. (Cf. Machiavelli's descdription of "cruelty well used in Chapter 16 of The Prince.)
    And yes, I was told that honking a horn is considered an invitation to a fist-fight. In Hawaii's low-firearms environment, that threat is credible.

  15. I am living in Palermo this summer and I promise you that absolutely nothing would stop the horn-blowing, car-alarms, and absolute mayhem heard on the streets 24 hours a day.
    Presumably they have laws on these things here but one would never know. Hey, it's Palermo.

  16. Prof. Kleiman,
    Christopher Hitchens had an article in Vanity Fair about the honking laws, and other random bits of legislation to make NY a more polite place. His tone was snide, but I think consideration and order are pretty great things. I can't find the link, but it was some time in 2004, I think.
    The problem is that even if we outlaw horns, what are you going to do about people flashing their brights?
    P.S. Could you please teach something fun in the Fall? There aren't any good policy classes for undergrads.

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