It seems that kids have forgotten how to stare out the window of a car, one of the great pastimes the past three generations of children have perfected. Portable games, activity books, iPods, iPads — there’s a lot to keep the modern kid’s attention in the backseat. But there’s at least one way that is guaranteed to get them to look out the window and engage with the road: Teach them the art of the long-haul trucker honk.
It’s unclear how the tradition actually started — other than with curious car passengers who figured out that truck horns are bigger, better, and altogether pretty thrilling. What we’ll call the “bend-and-pump method” harkens back to the days when the only way to activate a horn on a big rig was to reach up and grab a strap, and pull down for a thunderous honk.
That sound is so exhilarating because it truly is the loudest one on the road. The trucker’s horn is connected to air — the same system that controls the brakes — unlike the meager beeping electrically activated horn that’s in the rest of our vehicles. Today, some of the more modern trucks feature both types of horns, allowing drivers to honk based on the conditions around them. The condition of a kid asking for a honk? That still gets the full-blown bellow of air escaping with a great resonate HONK.
But can we still pull up alongside a working truck driver and expect them to oblige? After talking to a handful of truckers and trucking experts, we can confidently say, yes, this tradition is alive and well. “Although the technology in the truck has changed, the universal sign for honking the horn has not,” says Susan Fall, a 25-year veteran of the trucking industry. Thank the mighty asphalt gods for that.
The best way to get a honk remains refreshingly simple: “Come up beside us and do an arm pump,” says Robert Kulp, a driver who caught up with Fatherly while hustling down the road between Maryland and North Carolina. “That’s how we know they want the horn blown. I love it when they ask. There’s no wrong way.”
Susan Fall agreed, with a caveat: “Bend your right arm at 90 degrees, put it above your head then pull down. That said, don’t be surprised or hurt if the driver doesn’t do it, especially on a busy road.” And if you don’t think they see you, don’t dwell on it — they might be focused on traffic, construction, or their next exit. Move on to the next driver. After all, driving a truck can be among the most dangerous and isolating professions in the United States, according to a report by Trucks.com. “It’s never a good idea to distract a truck driver unless you’re on a nice, long, lonely stretch of highway,” says Fall.
But when the conditions are right, gesticulating to catch a truck driver’s attention will definitely take your kids attention away from their tablet and show them what the open road is all about.
While the horn on Kulp’s International rig is in a more carlike place on his steering wheel, his two Peterbilts have the traditional leather strap. And tradition is tradition.
“I’ll blow it for anybody,” he says, adults included. “If they want me to blow the horn, I’ll blow it.”
This article was originally published on