Safety Myths

International Noise Awareness Day 2015 | I was glad to see that Consumer Reports had written about horn-based vehicle alerts in the May issue. I wish the magazine had covered the source of the noise - product development decisions by automakers! - but acknowledging problems created by the technology and suggesting solutions for owners was a good start. [Online version]

The omission echoes some automakers' suggestion that owners are responsible for the use of horns to confirm lock and security - as if the technology just fell from the sky. As if Toyota and Subaru and Volvo had not long ago brought us the quiet electronic alternative that some automakers refuse to consider.

I have a few concerns about one paragraph in the Road Report piece, though, because if you aren't reading it carefully, it sounds as if the "safety" aspect is a given, and I think that beside from being inaccurate, that that is a misreading of the material:

"...others were reassured by the confirmation that their car was locked. For those who find themselves seeking a ubiquitous Camry in a dark, Escheresque parking structure, remote horn activation is a convenient locator and a safety measure as well."

But the writer is attributing the "safety measure" aspect of remote horn honking to some survey respondents, and this does not reflect the opinion of the magazine. (and please note that Camry's locating device is silent)

My favorite line in the piece directly relates to the "parking lot locating" aspect of some cars' locating technology:

"A major gripe was that the startling aural incursion often happens when a person is walking by someone else's car, unaware that the owner is activating it from hundreds of feet away."

Yes. Thank you. You said it - you get it.

Which leads me to a few thoughts about confusion around the issue of safety.

In online forums, owners who like using the horn to confirm locking sometimes refer to the technology as offering a sense of "safety." But it seems as if they mean that it offers reasurance, not safety - reassurance that the car is locked. But does it offer safety? If you are leaving the car and sound the horn, you're announcing that you're leaving the car. Less than a minute, and you're gone.

And what if you're approaching the car? What if you're approaching the car and sound the horn from half a block away, or several rows of cars away in a parking lot? The door is unlocked long enough for someone to open it and drive away. Highly unlikely, but - safe?

Others feel "safe" because their cars have the "panic alarm" feature. Has "panic alarm" ever stopped a carjacking in progress? If your eighteen-year-old daughter was approaching her car in a lonely parking lot and felt "unsafe" because a suspicious-looking stranger was lurking by the car, would you want her to (a) use "panic alarm" or (b) walk away and call for help or find someone to escort her to the car? What if it were your elderly parent? What if it were you?

And what about reports that people either jam on the brakes or accelerate because a nearby honk in a parking lot sends the wrong signal and they react without knowing it was merely someone locking a car? My father accelerated when pulling into the driveway when a nearby parked car honked, scraping the side of the car along a stone wall. What does that say about safety?

As far as I'm concerned, every argument about acoustic horn-based alerts and safety ends the same way, with the fact that Tesla is the least stolen car in the US. That would be Tesla as in (a) no horn confirmation - flashing lights or nothing, and (b) radical departure of all radical departures, Tesla does not use "panic alarm." When I asked why the automaker had opted not to use panic alarm, the answer was quick: "It isn't necessary."

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