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    Why New York Doesn't Need 'Don't Honk' Signs

    Written by

    Austin Considine

    Honk away, New Yorkers. It's still illegal, but it's official: No one really cares. Image via Epic Self

    Calling them a “lost cause,” New York City officials have decided to remove all the city’s “Don’t Honk” signs as part of an effort to declutter the streets from unheeded street signs.

    “It is the signature act of the New York City road, and in the grand tradition of jaywalking, it happens to be illegal,” the New York Times notes, correctly, about honking in the city. “Everyone does it, but barely anyone is punished.”

    The New York Department of Transportation, it seems, isn’t messing around. It intends to have all of the ubiquitous, red, white, and blue signs down by the end of the year, even though the law (and the $350 penalty) will not change. While at least one councilwoman has called this a terrible idea, the city's data seems to indicate that either "don't honk" signs are working well, or no longer necessary: since 2008, complaints to the city's 311 hotline about honking have declined by 63 percent, to 1,796 in 2012. 

    On one hand, it's a pretty straight forward decision by a city bureaucracy: ax something that's not working. On the other hand, the decision makes a clear choice between two different types of clutter—one visual, the other audio. In other words, is there some deeper reason we (or at least the DOT) finds one more acceptable than the other? Has honking declined or has our tolerance risen?

    Some pretty basic psychology suggests it might be the latter. The reason could lie in the differences in how our attention works—between the ways we process what we hear and what we read.

    Reading, when we encounter familiar words, is an automatic process for human beings. It’s so automatic that it interferes with our ability to cognitively process other tasks that seem intuitively simpler—like, say, naming colors. The reason is those latter tasks are much less habitual. We don't go around naming the colors to ourselves of everything we look at because it isn't useful.

    If we can, we do, however, read everything we see. Just try to look at basic words like


    and not read them. Before you’ve thought about it, you’ve already read it. 

    The preference for words over colors was shown in 1935, by psychologist John Ridley Stroop. That year he published findings from an experiment in which he demonstrated so effectively the way our attention privileges words over colors that it has since become known as the “Stroop effect.” The results of the tests he devised are so consistent they are a common exercise in beginning experimental psych classes for achieving “significant results.” ( Click here to try the experiments on yourself. Don’t worry, they don’t hurt.)

    Another rule, another thing to read, soon to be a relic. Image via Etsy.

    Sound, on the other hand, is something studies show we're able to “tune out” under certain circumstances. It’s partly what allows us to zero in on a single voice in a crowded room—known as “selective hearing” or the “cocktail party effect.” Last April, scientists from the University of California, San Francisco revealed that when we focus our listening attention on a sound—in this case, a single voice among several—that sound registers a neural response in our auditory cortex. What we decide is background noise does not have the same effect on our brains.

    Repeated exposure to sounds seems to have some bearing on what we tune out as well. In a 2005 study led by Spanish neurophysiologist, David Pérez-González, researchers tested what they called “novelty detector neurons” in rats—neurons located in the dorsal and external cortex of the inferior colliculus that reply “selectively to novel sounds.” Those neurons stopped activating once the sounds became repetitive, but fire up again once a parameter changes. 

    In New York, loudness is a constant fact of life, which doubtless inures us to its effects—and may also be damaging our hearing. For a study from 2010, researchers from Columbia University and the University of Washington selected 60 sites around Manhattan that had popped up on a city hotline for noise complaints and measured the ambient volume. Even amid small parks—ostensibly places of respite—levels were mostly above 70 decibels, daily exposure to which can lead to hearing loss, the researchers noted.

    A less formal and less extensive study undertaken by The New York Times last summer focused specifically on louder public spaces like bars, restaurants and gyms and found decibel levels that "experts said bordered on dangerous at one-third of them." Some gyms averaged 100 decibels across 40 minutes. New Yorkers spend a lot of time in public places like these. Is it possible they just keep getting louder?    

    A horn is, by nature, meant to disrupt our attention. And when we’re driving or crossing the street—hence, tuned into the tasks of maneuvering and self-preservation—a horn alerts us to danger or jolts us out of a daydream when the light turns green. But, as the above studies suggest, we get used to noise when it’s regular and predictable—adjectives that both describe car horns and the sound of much of New York City. Anecdotally, many of us know at least someone who complains he or she can’t sleep at night without the noise of the city. Of course, since the law isn't changing, pleading ignorance or claiming not to mind the sound of honking isn't likely to sway the policeman handing you a fine.

    Does our capacity for tuning out honking explain why the city is choosing audio clutter over visual clutter? Perhaps. Maybe, like eight million Huck Finns, we've all been civilized and we're honking our horns less—maybe we've internalized the rules. Maybe we're going deaf.

    Or maybe we’ve finally decided to slow the city’s inexorable march toward honk-less sanitization. Maybe we’re just loosening up.