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Road rage

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
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.

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