Skip to contents

Why Do Chicagoans Honk In Alleys? Some Say It’s The Law — But Police Beg To Differ

Many Chicagoans believe honking while exiting an alley protects pedestrians – but it should never replace braking and exiting slowly, police say.

Some Chicagoans believe honking while exiting an alley protects pedestrians.
rickety schorr / Flickr
  • Credibility:

DOWNTOWN — It’s a tradition as uniquely Chicago as hating ketchup on a hot dog: honking your horn before driving out of an alley.

An informal Block Club Chicago poll showed 64 percent of respondents honk their horns when exiting an alley. The poll inspired a passionate discussion among the pro-honkers (not honking “is the surest way to gauge if your date is a sociopath”) and the anti-honkers (“USE YOUR BRAKES! NOT YOUR HORN!”).

As it turns out, those who honk are … legally in the wrong.

“Technically, the horn is meant … to prevent an accident. It’s not to be used at all times, 24 hours a day,” said Officer Michael Carroll, a Chicago Police spokesman.

Instead, drivers should pull up to the end of the alley and stop, Caroll said. Then they should pull up to the street, stop again and drive.

“There are times when honking a horn would make sense,” Carroll said, like when there are large buildings obstructing a driver’s view of the sidewalk from the alley. “While there are times where honking a horn would make sense, overall, the use of horn at the end of the alley should not be done,” the officer said. 

That’s news to a lot of Chicagoans, though. More than a few responding to Block Club’s poll on Twitter said they thought they were legally required to honk when exiting an alley.

Nope, Carroll said. Drivers can actually get ticketed for honking. (And, for the record, Carroll grew up in Edgebrook with sparsely used alleys and said he didn’t know his fellow Chicagoans were honking in alleys until he moved.)

“With or without the horn, the horn thing being completely secondary, the most important thing is that people exiting the alley … stop as if they’re at a stop sign” at the sidewalk and the street, Carroll said.

The issue is still hotly debated among Chicagoans, though.

Melissa McEwen, 32, of Logan Square, was taking an adult driving class last year when her instructor gave her a bit of advice: Don’t honk in alleys during your test, but do it in “real life.”

“They said to me, ‘Oh, that’s what normal people in Chicago do, is they honk before coming out of an alley. But it’s not rules of the road, it’s not an official thing, so don’t do it on the test,'” McEwen said.

Her driver’s instructor wasn’t the only one to say so.

“Definitely in neighborhood groups, people are always like, ‘Yeah, it’s just Chicago custom. You gotta do it,'” McEwen said.

Jonathan Nelson, 31, of Albany Park, said he doesn’t see a reason for drivers not to honk in alleys. Almost everyone he knows honks, Nelson said, and he thinks it can help protect pedestrians.

“I think it only helps,” Nelson said. “I always appreciate when someone else taps the horn when coming out.”

A former honker, Diego Lopez, 34, of Portage Park, said he’s trying to quit because he wants to be a safer driver and doesn’t think using a horn should be a replacement for braking at the end of an alley. He also lives near the end of an alley and gets annoyed by the beep-beeps.

Honking “was just sort of the thing I thought you were supposed to do as a courtesy to other people …,” Lopez said, noting his father probably taught him to honk. When his own kids, who are 3 years and 2-1/2 months old, are driving years from now, he’ll “tell them the option of the honk, but I don’t want them to use it as a replacement for safe driving.”

Tim Falletti, 37, of Albany Park, grew up in Midway listening to his grandparents argue about honking “all the time” (his grandma honked; his grandpa was a non-believer).

Falletti ended up siding with his grandfather on the matter. Now that he lives near a school, which is next to an alley with a stop sign, he gets frustrated when drivers breeze through the sign and just honk instead of stopping and looking for kids walking in the area. He sees near-misses “all the time,” he said, and there was an incident last year where a driver honked while coming out of an alley but still hit and minorly injured a child.

“It’s like one of those pet peeves now of mine where I feel like you should stop and you should look just like you normally would anywhere else,” Falletti said.

Falletti’s wife, a transplant from New Mexico, doesn’t even understand the practice.

“She thinks honking is the weirdest thing ever,” he said.

She’s not alone — honking in alleys seems to be a purely Chicago tradition, with few having seen the practice outside of the city. Falletti went to college in Austin, where there are “tons of alleys” but “zero honking,” he said. McEwen, who grew up in Atlanta, said there’s no honking there (but also no alleys in the area she grew up). Lopez hasn’t seen it anywhere else, and Nelson’s not sure he’s heard of it happening in other cities.

“I think it’s another ketchup-on-a-hot-dog kind of thing,” Falletti said. “Where did it come from? Where did that whole ‘frontroom’ word come from?

“I think it just originated here, and for some reason it just passed on from generation to generation.”

The debate rages on: