These days, around Mumbai, I’m seeing quite a few stickers and hand-painted signs on the backs of trucks and tempos exclaiming, “Horn not OK, please!” Is Mumbai in the midst of a behaviour change experiment to kill honking?
The perennial demand from trucks and tempos has always been the opposite of no honking. Painted on the mudflaps, bumpers or any other space on the back has always been the unrelenting declaration, “Horn OK, Please!” In curvy letters, sometimes in all capitals to underscore the urgency, these three words have been a quintessential element of a lorry’s identity. The politeness, captured in the “Please!” is a cute counterweight to the otherwise aggressive ask. There is no ambiguity in what is being asked for, that’s for sure.
India’s lorries are famous for their creative art: the driver’s cabin is like a bride bedecked for her wedding, with red, pink, green and other brightly coloured streamers and buntings adorning the top of the windscreen, the sides of the cab, and even flowing off the sideview mirrors. Kohl-rimmed, seductive eyes are painted alongside the rearview mirror, as if to gaze adoringly at the driver as he winds his way down highways across the country.
The “Horn OK, Please!” statement is also an essential part of the lorry’s identity. When I was growing up, I would always wonder why they were so keen to be honked at. From what I knew, being honked at was a scolding, that you were driving in a wrong way and to stop being a nuisance to the others on the road. So why were these vehicles so keen to be at the receiving end? I understood, eventually, that they are so large and bulky that they may not see the smaller cars and motorcycles around them and may inadvertently run into them if they’re not alerted to their existence with the honk. Like hulking whales, followed by shoals of tiny fish, they had been created too large for their surroundings. Not wanting to hurt their fellow beings, these gentle giants were requesting for help when they asked to be honked at. I always felt warmed in my heart when I saw those three words, and I always obliged with multiple, loud honks as I passed them.
So, when I started seeing “Horn Not OK, Please!” I felt confused. The ecosystem seemed to be thrown into disarray, the natural order being disrupted. The lorries were the same, big, awkward and bulky. Not only had they changed their tune, even smaller tempos were chiming in. Everywhere I looked, it was the same. I scratched my head, and then I realised why.
“Horn Not OK, Please!” must be part of a new campaign in Mumbai to reduce the honking around the city. Any visitor to Mumbai will realise within minutes that it is a city of cacophony. The air is ripped by mindless honking. Auto rickshaw drivers and motorcyclists are the worst perpetrators, but everyone joins into the awful orchestra. There is no reason for the honking these days; even at red traffic signals, there are enough rowdy vehicles pressing down on the horn, if not to magically change the signal then to bully those ahead of them to break the signal and run through. At traffic jams, which are happening with increasing frequency all over the city, it is the same shrieking and screaming. It has become so uncivil that there is no heed paid to the fact that hospitals are nearby, where patients may need quiet to survive and heal from their illness, or places of worship where there may be a service going on to save souls.
There have been countless diatribes on the noisiness of Mumbai – on social media, mainstream media and any other outlet, including dinner parties, office meetings and social dates. It is, undoubtedly, a favourite topic.
It seems something is finally being done about it. I think there is a larger campaign going on to end the mindless honking. It looks like the city’s goods carriers have come on board, allowing the use of their ubiquitous vehicles to relay the message.
It’s clever. Using the familiar phrase and turning it on its head is a witty way to catch attention and get the message across. With the vast number of vehicles seen in every corner of the city, the message feels big and broad, like a mass event. And seeing the message multiple times makes one absorb it and reflect on it, subconsciously at first and then consciously.
This is a clever set of nudges to change behaviour. No preaching from a pulpit, no dictate handed down. Small cues that keep the message front and center and make you feel like everyone is doing it.
It’s a fundamental behavioural urge, to want to belong, to not stick out. When the message is everywhere, presumably embraced by everyone, it feels socially unacceptable now to honk. Emphasising this change is to stand in traffic next to a car that is waiting patiently, not honking. Ditto for the auto rickshaw on the other side, also quietly at a still. The behavioural insight around in-groups and out-groups is at play here. Mumbai citizens are united in their love for and pride of the city. They are also united in their frustration with the quality of life being compromised by traffic and noise. Hence, anyone who isn’t on board with changes to improve the quality of life will be automatically in the out-group. No one wants to be in the out-group. It’s ostracising and uncomfortable.
Secondly, there is the insight around priming. The “Horn Not OK, Please!” message keeps popping up, reminding us to not honk. The exhortation is strong and creates a strong impression in our minds. With this as the backdrop, there is a reduced desire and energy to do the opposite and, as a result, we end up honking less. Given the high number of opportunities to honk, the ubiquitousness of the message plays a key reminding and reinforcing role to keep us quiet.
I don’t know whether it’s working or not. It feels to me like it is – I see more cars flashing their headlights instead of pressing the horn. The traffic feels marginally quieter. I hope it works. We’ll all be less anxious, calmer and happier Mumbaikars.