Before 2020 I hated the sound of car horns.
Honking is often associated with road rage or used to warn people of impending danger, and because I’m easily startled, even rare friendly beeps from familiar faces trying to say hello make me jump. But this year, instead of causing anxiety, the sound of blaring car horns, trucks loudly honking, and cyclical beeps emanating from packed parking lots filled me with pure, unbridled joy.
I never imagined that the harsh, alarming sound of car horns would sound like music to my ears, but the unexpected pivot was a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic. When people learned that social distancing was a crucial safety precaution they started getting creative and seeking out safer ways to host and attend large public gatherings. Many of these makeshift solutions involved cars, since the enclosed personal spaces offer an added layer of protection from the virus.
Rather than meeting face-to-face and risking added COVID-19 exposure, people organized gatherings that let them safely stay in their vehicles. When pandemic milestones such as birthdays, graduations, and weddings come around, for instance, folks often line up for celebratory car parades to send well wishes from afar.
Today is my son’s birthday. We had to cancel his party weeks ago, but his friends staged a car parade today & it was awesome. It’s hard here in NY right now. My community is in bad shape. But moments like this remind us that we’re in this together & we’ll get through it together pic.twitter.com/2s36JxUlaM
— Erik Davis (@ErikDavis) March 29, 2020
When issues arise and people don’t feel comfortable attending in-person protests, some slap signs on their vehicle’s doors and take part in car protests to ensure their voices can be safely heard. And when running political campaigns, candidates who take the virus seriously opt to host outdoor drive-in rallies instead of packing indoor event spaces, which is against Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance.
🚗🚗🚗 Beep Beep! Make Some Noise for Essential Postal, Grocery, and Hospital Workers! 🚗🚗🚗
Scenes from the Car Caravan Rally to Save Our Postal Service, Reinstate Hazard Pay for Grocery Workers, and Safe Staffing for Hospital Workers!! pic.twitter.com/OGyGkqducS
— Portland Jobs with Justice 📢↙️↙️↙️ (@JwJpdx) May 21, 2020
Santa Monica, outside St. John’s hospital — dozens of cars honk & circle in support of CNA & NNU #COVID19 nurses demanding PPE, hotel rooms to quarantine & return of nurses put on leave for refusing to treat COVID patients unless given N-35 masks. Spirited car rally! pic.twitter.com/XDfnCOrpTu
— Marcy Winograd (@marcywinograd) April 21, 2020
At the pandemic events listed above people used car horns not to express anger on the road, but to say “I love you,” hype people up, offer support, show approval, and fight for their beliefs.
Horns as a sound of hope in politics
In the months leading up to Election Day, the sound of car horns was a rallying cry for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ campaign.
Despite the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic — which has killed more than 306,000 Americans — Donald Trump continued to host super spreader events and large in-person campaign rallies. He’s also defended delivering addresses in crowded indoor venues where supporters stood in close proximity to one another and didn’t always wear masks.
Biden and Harris on the other hand, vowed to prioritize the safety of their supporters by upholding and enforcing proper social distancing measures throughout their campaign, which meant that drive-in car rallies became go-to events.
I’ll admit that the rallies felt a bit odd initially, but they fit these dystopian times perfectly and in time the sound of cars honking in response to standout quotes or well-articulated responses to drive-in Town Hall questions became heartwarming.
After watching a rally or two I found myself looking forward to and getting energized by the booming chorus of vehicular horns. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t break down into hopeful, exhausted sobs when Barack Obama’s “Honk if you’re fired up, honk if you’re ready to go” request was met with a noisy drive-in rally response.
After the election, the honking continued to ring out in the streets as supporters celebrated Biden and Harris’ victory loudly and proudly. The sound of beeping filled the country after the race was called on on Nov. 7, and drivers laid on their horns to show love to people dancing and cheering.
Why honking hit different in 2020
In 2020, beeping a horn at a socially distanced gatherings wasn’t just a form of expression. Every honk was symbolic of the difficult year we’ve had, and it served as an audible, emotional reminder that people were in their cars because they cared for and wanted to protect others.
If given the choice between regular, in-person parties, graduations, and holiday celebrations or socially distanced car parades and parking lot gatherings I’m sure people would choose in-person gatherings without a second thought. But the fact that so many sacrificed normal social gatherings for less exciting car-centric ones and tried to make the best of the horrible circumstances by beeping their horns to uplift and reassure others was a beautiful, selfless effort.
I worried the car thing would be cringe-y, but the beeping is super fun, expresses the relief we all feel right now.
And that was a perfect speech by Kamala.
— Pat Cunnane (@PatCunnane) November 8, 2020
the sweeeet harmonious sounds of long & lingering, and short & hard car honks in no organized fashion… I love it. the best noise. honk honk.
— Morgan Murphy (@morgan_murphy) November 7, 2020
Once the pandemic ends and we hopefully return to some semblance of pre-2020 social normalcy I doubt that car horns will be able to maintain the feeling of positivity that they brought people this year.
The popularity of drive-in rallies and car parades will likely fade, and there’s a very good chance I’ll grow to loathe beeping again. But I’ll never forget how the sound gave me hope in a time that felt hopeless and acted as a beacon of light in one of the darkest years.