Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


On the Road Again

Road rage

(Photo: Irish Typepad/Flickr)

Why Don’t Cars Have a ‘Sorry’ Signal?

• February 03, 2014 • 10:32 AM

(Photo: Irish Typepad/Flickr)

It might be a cure for road rage—or just the cause of more accidents.

Last week, our own Lauren Kirchner wrote “The Psychology and Biology of Road Rage,” a post that asks why on-the-road altercations can so quickly escalate to fatal violence—especially shootings. Among a number of reasons driving encourages aggression, one thing Kirchner lists stands out because it seems like it could be so easy to fix: It’s really hard to apologize to other drivers.

“Drivers make little mistakes all the time: timing things incorrectly, for instance, or accidentally going the wrong speed for whatever zone they’re in,” Kirchner writes, referencing a 2006 study on road rage. “And it’s pretty easy for those mistakes to be misinterpreted as purposeful acts of aggression, especially since there’s no type of horn-honk that says ‘sorry.’”

“The ‘sorry’ function is a Band-Aid for what is a lot of really crappy driving out there. What would be better than a ‘sorry’ signal is if people just didn’t do things that made people sorry behind the wheel.”

So, why isn’t there some type of horn-honk that says “sorry”? Or, more broadly, why isn’t there any device at all on cars for communicating helpful messages to other drivers aside from turn signals and brake lights? There are novelty items and archaic hand signals, sure, but in an age of Google Glass, insect drones, and Netflix, isn’t it a little surprising that I still have to wave my hand awkwardly in front of my mirror when I accidentally cut someone off, instead of simply activating a blinker in my rear window to make sure the person knows I’m aware of my own incompetence?

In light of Kirchner’s post, such a simple addition seems like it actually could save some lives—or at least save us all a little stress on the road. But whether or not we’d ever see “sorry” signals as a standard feature on cars, and whether or not they’d really do any good, depends on whom you ask.

The idea of this type of indicator may seem out of left field, but Kirchner is far from the first person to imagine it. The notion pops up from time to time in media pop culture, usually as a punchline—something that’s clever, but not to be taken too seriously. Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the retired hosts of Car Talk, for instance, included a “sorry button” on a list of “Features We’d Really Like to See in All Cars,” and Matthew Inman has drawn a comic about the same device at the Oatmeal. Comedy writer Dennis Hong advocates for what he calls a “’My Bad’ Horn” after he describes one time a BMW almost ran into his car:

Unmentionable profanities spewed from my mouth as I was forced to swerve around him at 50 mph. But then, I looked over as I blew past him … and I saw him hold up his hand and nod sheepishly at me. It was pretty clear from his body language that he was saying, ‘Sorry, my bad.’ … [M]y desire to continue spewing profanities immediately vanished.

Bob Long, host of AutoWorld and other syndicated automotive radio programs, though, admits he thinks the “sorry” indicator is more than a novel concept. “It certainly makes a whole lot of sense of a wide variety of levels,” he says. “There’s a lot of road rage and a lot of frustrated people.” In fact, the night before I spoke to him, he said, he witnessed a battle between two drivers for a mall parking spot that ended in a curse-heavy face-to-face confrontation. “This could have been prevented if one car could have messaged, ‘No, I’m here first and that’s my spot.’ It could have been done in a much more polite manner,” he reflected.

While the automotive industry’s extreme bureaucracy and government regulations would make any sort of message lights “a little bit difficult to actually execute,” he noted, he stood by the sorry signal as “plausible”: “People will laugh about it,” he says, “but I don’t think it’s a bad idea at all.”

Eddie Alterman, the editor in chief of Car and Driver magazine, meanwhile, isn’t confident a “sorry” signal would do anything to get at the heart of the real problem on the road: bad driving. “The ‘sorry’ function is a Band-Aid for what is a lot of really crappy driving out there,” he told me. “What would be better than a ‘sorry’ signal is if people just didn’t do things that made people sorry behind the wheel.”

His main concern was that drivers are distracted enough today by phones, so they don’t need anything else in or on cars to steal their attention. “The beauty of the lighting signals that cars have is that they’re highly coded. Everybody knows what they mean: Red is stop; orange is turn,” he says. “You don’t have to sit there and think, ‘Oh, is this guy saying something to me?’ And then have to read it. That’s a big distraction. And that, in turn, is only going to cause more sorry signals to be thrown up.”

And, of course, there’s the potential for “sorry” signal abuse: Alterman and I couldn’t help imagining the reckless jerk who veers in front of your car on the highway then mockingly flashes the “sorry” sign as he peels off.

The big question, though, is if we actually had the power to apologize on the road, would we do so? “The automobile and driving goes right to the heart of who you are,” says John Heitman, author of The Automobile and American Life. “If you’re a person who doesn’t like to admit they’re wrong, takes criticism badly, I think the ‘sorry’ indicator isn’t going to work real well for you. I think for the compassionate, the kind-hearted, the overly-nice people, maybe they’d use it. But I’m not going to admit in a heated traffic situation I’ve made a mistake.”

When I asked Heitmann how he’d react if he ever saw someone flash a “sorry” signal, he said: “At first, I’d have a soft heart in some ways for it. And then I’d think to myself, ‘Damn, that’s a weak person.’”

If you’re one of the believers in the “sorry” signal and itching to see it on the market, consider this before you rush out to patent your own: It actually has been tried before. “Thank you” lights for cars were made as early as 1934, with the hope that “their widespread use may tend to bring about better road manners by the touring public, thus helping to reduce the number of accidents.” Two more recent inventions, while apparently still available for online purchase, don’t seem to have fared much better: The makers of the “Courtesy Flashing Sign,” which says “thank you” and “sorry,” didn’t respond to an email request for an interview and have a phone number that no longer works; and Drivemotion, makers of an “LED Car Sign” that can be programmed to display a huge variety of messages and images (including ones that aren’t too nice), came up short in a Kickstarter campaign last year. Their website is currently down.

None of this is to to say devices for communication between drivers are a lost cause. In fact, the future of driver-to-driver messaging is brighter than ever before—it just might not involve “sorry” signals. Long and Alterman both cited recent major advances in vehicle-to-vehicle communication, which uses digital mechanisms that allow cars to exchange information with each other so that they can be made to automatically respond to their surroundings, doing things like steering themselves in traffic and self-activating their brakes to avoid collisions. If we eventually teach cars to drive themselves, we’d probably need to do a lot less apologizing. Moreover, communication technology between cars could allow us to send messages far more detailed than “I’m sorry” to surrounding drivers, especially with our hands free.

“Messages could go through smart dashboards or something like that, where the car’s interior becomes more of a glass cockpit, like you see in modern aircraft,” Alterman says.

Of course, that’s still many years off. The “sorry” signal still may not be a terrible option before then. Otherwise, as Alterman says, “until that time, it’s just middle fingers and horns.”

Paul Bisceglio
Editorial Fellow Paul Bisceglio was previously an editorial intern at Smithsonian magazine and a staff reporter at Manhattan Media. He is a graduate of Haverford College and completed a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Warwick in Coventry, United Kingdom. Follow him on Twitter @PaulBisceglio.

More From Paul Bisceglio

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.