Honking Your Horn, Flashing Your Headlights – When Do You Have Permission?

Author: Hannes Rüghmeiner

Dec 13, 2023 Safety on the road

Many people experience it: You get upset in traffic and immediately lay on the horn. Or you flash your headlights at someone who is not moving. But when is any of this permitted – and why do you react like that?

Honking your horn can be liberating. Especially when you get upset with other drivers. Be it because they have snapped up your parking spot or because someone is slow to get going when the light turns green. You are angry and vent your anger via the horn. The situation is similar to when you flash your headlights. If someone creeps into the left lane ahead of you and does not see the point of moving to the right over a long stretch of road, it is tempting to flash your headlights several times to make it clear to the other driver that you are annoyed.
However, honking your horn and flashing your lights are not the right means to express yourself in these situations. Both signals are explicitly intended to be used as warning signals. “The road traffic regulations provide the basis,” says DEKRA traffic expert Thomas Riedel. Section 16 specifically regulates the topic. It states that “sound and light signals may only be given when overtaking outside built-up areas or by anyone who considers themselves or others to be in danger.” Examples: A car suddenly pulls into your lane on the highway or a pedestrian is in danger. The horn may then be used as a warning signal. In urban areas, honking is only permitted in dangerous situations.
Switzerland: Horns allowed before tight bends
Although honking the horn is a legitimate way of announcing a passing maneuver outside of town, it is a rather surprising application for many people. This is because it rarely happens on German roads in everyday life. “We don’t actually see it happen often in Germany. In Italy or other southern European countries, for example, it is quite common,” says expert Riedel. “And it is permitted and makes sense if, for example, the road user in front of me is not paying attention to the traffic behind them.” In Switzerland, honking before blind and tight bends is common and permitted on mountain roads, for example.
More often, however, honking the horn and flashing the headlights are used for other purposes. Strictly speaking, this is not okay. For example when flashing the headlights to greet someone on the road or to warn others of a speed camera. After all, there is no imminent danger here and there is a risk of misinterpretation. After soccer matches or weddings, horns also ring out during motorcades. However, most law enforcement officers turn a blind eye in such cases.
Offenses of coercion
There is less leeway if the offense of coercion is fulfilled, like with impatient tailgaters on the highway. Although briefly flashing your lights to announce your intention to overtake is permitted, there are limits. “For example, if you’re tailgating and flashing your lights at the same time. Or if you risk the other driver losing control of their vehicle and causing a collision,” says Riedel.
While a simple misuse of flashing your headlights or honking your horn can result in a warning fine of five to ten euros, the penalties for coercion are significantly higher. Here, fines or imprisonment as well as a driving ban or revocation of your driver’s license are possible.
The question is: Why does it even come to this? Why do people allow themselves to be provoked in traffic? “Whether I honk, tailgate, or otherwise try to get ahead has something to do with how I’m integrated into the flow of traffic, and whether I reach my destination on time or am hindered in some way. That’s when trouble arises,” says DEKRA traffic psychologist Dr. Thomas Wagner.
However, not all people behind the wheel react the same. “It’s a combination of the situation and the driver's personality,” says Wagner. “The fuse is particularly short in impatient, impulsive types, as well as people who struggle with their social environment as a whole and have difficulty integrating. American researchers Tillmann and Hobbs concluded as early as 1949: ‘Truly it may be said that a man drives as he lives.’ In other words, people behave in traffic as they do in other situations in life.”
No deterioration of the traffic climate
The positive side: According to Wagner, contrary to the image often painted by the public, the traffic climate on German roads has not deteriorated. Surveys in Germany have shown that neither a particularly positive nor a particularly negative mood is perceived. However, it is interesting to note that frequent drivers rate the situation four times worse than infrequent drivers, and city dwellers feel the situation is worse than residents of rural areas.
If you do find yourself in a situation where anger is building up, Wagner advises you to drive to the nearest parking lot, take a break, and calm down – for example with a breathing exercise or a walk around the car. Filing a complaint can also be an option if you have been hassled. “In that case, simply drive off at the next exit, inform the police, and give them the license plate number. They will investigate,” says the expert.
You should also bear in mind: In traffic, you only ever have a limited field of vision. “If someone cuts us off or takes the right of way, we tend to assume that they have dishonest motives. But we forget that someone may not know their way around, may be stressed, inattentive, etc. and that there is no malicious intent behind their actions,” Wagner reminds us.