Speed bumps are a minor irritant of American life. Now there’s another, more major irritant — drivers who honk when they come to one.
Being something of a modern-culture laggard, I was unaware that honking at speed bumps is a broad, seemingly spontaneous protest movement. Drivers have taken to honking their horns every time they cross a speed bump in reprisal for the neighborhood that presumably asked that the bump be installed.
A story in The Washington Post reported that the District of Columbia side of my old neighborhood has become bitterly divided over its new speed bumps. Said the newspaper: “It’s Petty. It’s Personal. And Chevy Chase is Honkin’ Aggravated.” (The Maryland side of the neighborhood has back-to-back speed cameras within a couple hundred yards of each other, but that’s a separate irritant.)
Typically of such disputes there has been shouting, single-digit salutes, videotaping and listserves, and the Post reports that the spat “has become an embarrassment to a community that views itself as the essence of worldly sophistication.”
That must have happened since we moved out, because nobody would ever have associated “worldly” and “sophistication” with the late, lamented Chevy Chase Lounge. But we stray.
It turns out the “Honk 4 Speed Bump” movement is all over the Web, including videos devoted to all things speed bump on YouTube. My favorite is a collection of slackers and stoners purporting to be the Anti-Speed Bump Coalition of Berkeley, Calif. Another is a fixed camera somewhere in England that consists of cars going over a speed bump in a mesmerizing rhythm of thump-and-scrape as front bumpers hit the pavement.
There is some uncertainty about what speed bumps should be called. The Brits call them speed humps or road humps. In the English-speaking Caribbean and, I’m told, in New Zealand, they’re called sleeping policemen, which is kind of gruesome when you think about it.
The worst speed bumps I’ve encountered were in East Jerusalem, where they were more like curbs going across the whole street, unmarked during the day and unlit at night, making driving even more than the usual Mideast adventure. Honking would be a pointless protest because Jerusalem’s drivers honk all the time, in greeting, frustration or simple self-expression.
Wikipedia asserts that speed bumps were a British invention that migrated to the United States in the 1960s. But The New York Times makes a strong case for the original culprit being Chatham, N.J., which installed a speed bump on Main Street in 1906, two years after the first car arrived in town.
Like the Berkeley videographers, the residents of Chatham gathered to witness the speed bumps in action, although without the beer, Mohawks and tattoos. The Times quoted its own account of that landmark day: “Goggles, hats, a monkey wrench, sidecombs, hairpins and other articles flew in all directions. The crowd gave a cheer and decided that the borough’s plan was effective.”
The reporter mourned that on the 100th anniversary of its first appearance the speed bump went uncelebrated in the town of its birth. The speed bump is far from ignored in the nation’s capital. Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty seems determined to be to speed bumps what the Pharoah Cheops was to pyramids. Under his reign, the number of speed bumps in the city has gone from 100 to 868, with as many as four in a single block.
The honking-at-speed-bumps phenomenon may be nationwide, but somehow solving one problem by creating another is just so Washington.