Hitchhiking Did Not Die a Natural Death

Readers — One of you sent me this fascinating piece on hitchhiking that ran in the New York Times last year. The writer, Ginger Strand, author of  Killer On the Road, points out that hitchhiking had been a normal mode of transportation, never considered particularly dangerous, until the late ’50s when:

The F.B.I. began warning American motorists that hitchhikers might be criminals. A typical F.B.I. poster showed a well-dressed yet menacing hitchhiker under the title “Death in Disguise?”

In the ’60s, the focus began to shift, emphasizing dangers to the hitchhiker instead of the driver. Although many states had some kind of regulation of hitching on the books, communities like Los Angeles, Boston and Nantucket, Mass. began debating municipal bans on soliciting rides. Officials in Cambridge, Mass., took an unusual approach, voting in 1971 to levy fines on motorists who picked up hitchhikers. In towns across the nation, the police arrested underage thumbers and distributed pamphlets. Police officers at Rutgers University handed out cards to hitchhiking women that read, “If I were a rapist, you’d be in trouble.”

Women, in particular, were said to be “asking for it” if they put out a thumb. The news media took the bait, writing scores of articles denouncing the practice. “In the case of a girl who hitchhikes,” a 1973 article in Reader’s Digest declared, “the odds against her reaching her destination unmolested are today literally no better than if she played Russian roulette.”

That was an absurd exaggeration. There were some well-known cases of murderers preying on hitchhikers, but there was no evidence that hitchhiking actually increased the murder rate. The one agency to commission a study on the subject, the California Highway Patrol, found in 1974 that hitchhiking was a factor in 0.63 percent of crimes in the state. That’s hardly Russian roulette. The patrol agency concluded that reducing hitchhiking would probably not reduce crime. But by then the public perception had been transformed. Hitchhiking was considered so reckless that few drivers would encourage it by stopping.

Read more here, and then think about how hitchhiking died the same way (and the same time) walking to school did. Suddenly, nothing was safe beyond one’s own home or car. Young folk, especially, were told not to hitchhike, and so were stuck at home. So as we fight for Free-Range Kids, let’s bring hitching back, too.

Over the summer I was driving with my younger son and we picked up a hitchhiker who was otherwise stuck walking a mile or two to his construction job. Made my day (and his)! And I was happy my son saw me helping and trusting a stranger. A man, even! – L. 

Rides from strangers also fell victim to "stranger danger."

“Stranger-danger” fells another great, communal idea.  

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58 Responses to Hitchhiking Did Not Die a Natural Death

  1. JOswald January 7, 2014 at 8:28 am #

    And the 2007 movie, The Hitcher, sealed the deal!!! Or, rather, reflects how what you wrote above has weaved its way into the national psyche. From IMDB: While driving through the New Mexico Desert during a rainy night, the college students Jim Halsey and his girlfriend Grace Andrews give a ride to the hitchhiker John Ryder. While in their car, the stranger proves to be a psychopath threatening the young couple with a knife, but Jim succeeds to throw him out of the car on the road. On the next morning, the young couple sees John in another car with a family, and while trying to advise the driver that the man is dangerous, they have an accident. While walking on the road, they find the whole family stabbed in the car … (And it gets far more violent …)

  2. Joel January 7, 2014 at 8:36 am #

    Hitchhiking provides a large benefit to those who get rides at a very small cost to those who provide them. It’s too personal and efficient and therefore competes with the State, which would rather they use an inefficient and impersonal public transportation option.

  3. brian January 7, 2014 at 8:54 am #

    Really interesting point.

    It is also similar to walking to school because the change in perception makes it more dangerous. When there are less people doing it and drivers are less likely to pick people up, there are less people around making it safer for all.

  4. Coasterfreak January 7, 2014 at 8:55 am #

    Although I can’t remember the name of it now, I remember when I was in middle school in the mid 80’s we were shown a movie in Health Class that illustrated the dangers of hitchhiking. The only scene I remember now is when one of the girls got into a car with someone and when she asked him to stop and let her out, he sped up and locked the doors. He eventually pulled over and explained to her that he was just trying to scare her out of hitchhiking because something really bad COULD have happened to her. I think it was maybe an Afterschool Special…

    As far as movies about the dangers of picking up a hitchhiker go, the original 1986 version of The Hitcher is a classic horror masterpiece, IMHO. Rutger Hauer rocks!

    I wouldn’t personally hitchhike, just because it would make me uncomfortable. But I know plenty of people who have (and who have picked up hitchhikers) and are still alive to tell about it.

  5. TRS January 7, 2014 at 8:58 am #

    There is an organized hitchhiker lines in Northern VA. They are called slug lines. You pick one up and you get to drive the HOV road down to Washington DC. Works great.

    Honestly – in most situations I will not pick one up. It is illegal to hitchhike in the first place. Only if I had a pick up truck – they could ride in the back. I would have to be miles and miles from a prison.

  6. Miriam January 7, 2014 at 9:18 am #

    He wasn’t a hitchhiker, but this does remind me of the time, several years ago, when my mom got delayed so many hours for her flight that she decided to go home to wait instead of stay in the airport.While in the airport she struck up conversation with a young man who was only 12 hours into a 36 hour international journey and whose flight had also been terribly delayed. Well guess what, she took him home with her, gave him a meal, shower and bed, and we all survived the night without being raped or burgled while we slept. I thought she was nuts at the time for befriending a random guy and dragging him home! But now that I’m older I totally appreciate the confidence and trust she had in a complete stranger. And he was a really nice guy too.

  7. sreynertson January 7, 2014 at 9:22 am #

    I picked up a hitchhiker on Halloween this year! I live among farmland dotted with small hamlets in NJ. After asking him a few questions to ‘get a read on him,’ I let him in. Turns out we lived in same town. He had taken the bus back from a nearby city to the last possible stop. Regional bus lines that would have taken him all the way back to our town had long been discontinued. That was a wake up call for me. If you don’t have a car, you are automatically suspect if you try to hitch a ride! And you are dependent on the rare stranger who hasn’t bought into the idea that hitchhikers are dangerous deviants.

  8. Michelle January 7, 2014 at 9:32 am #

    I hitchhiked in France with my best friend once when we were 17. We were just going from a small village to the local beach, and we missed the bus. A car full of teenaged boys picked us up, and then lectured us the whole way there about how “it’s not safe to hitchhike here like it is in America.” LOL.

    I’ve also had many people offer me a ride when they see me walking someplace. I accepted once when it was raining, but even when I don’t, it seems pretty clear to me that people are just concerned / trying to be nice. I seriously doubt that they were all serial killers.

  9. Rob January 7, 2014 at 9:39 am #

    I hitchhiked back and forth across the country throughout most of the 1970s, both alone and later with my wife, and never had a bit of trouble – ever.

  10. Pam January 7, 2014 at 9:57 am #

    My grandfather used to pick up “hippies” in the late 60s/early 70s. My brother and I (who were around 9 and 10) loved it! There was my grandpop, conservative Sunday School teacher who ALWAYS wore a tie (even to go to the grocery store) chatting with a usually barefoot, long-haired hippie. Everyone he picked up was so nice and cool and funny. “Why do you pick up those people from the side of the road?” we asked him one day. “Because they need a ride,” he answered. Simple as that.

  11. QB January 7, 2014 at 9:59 am #

    Long ago I was an exchange student in Northern Europe (Finland to be exact). At the end of the exchange year, we were allowed/encouraged to travel anywhere we could afford to go for the final month. A friend and I (both female) chose to travel through Sweden, Norway,and Denmark. At the time there was a 21 day rail pass for not so much money, but that left us hitchhiking for 9 days until it kicked in. While we did have one mild creep pick us up (he was happy to let us stay at his place and had a friend for my friend), he let us off at the destination we chose with no questions. The rest of the trip was awesome. We got to ride in a big rig, we met several really nice people, including a man who gave us his number and said when we made it to Stockholm we should call (he had lived in Australia and knew what kind of traveling we were doing). We called him and he put us up in a hostel, bought us a few really nice meals, took us sight seeing, and generally took care of us because he wanted to do so. Years after I came home we still exchanged Christmas cards.
    And still, I would hesitate to pick up someone in the US and we have hitchhikers here in Vermont all the time. Funny how that media campaign has imprinted itself in my brain.

  12. Tom January 7, 2014 at 10:32 am #

    Both sides can be found in Ripped From the Headlines drama.

    I always figured that radio programs like “Tales of the Texas Rangers”, “Suspense” and “The Whistler” were the reason my Mom and Dad always looked stonily ahead when they saw a hitchiker at the side of the road. The stories never ended well for the generous soul who wanted company and a break from driving.

    The other side is in the CHiPs episode “Hitch Hiking Hitch” (S1 ep 17). In that one, even as a kid, you pretty much knew what was going to happen to the two girls who were hitchiking on the freeway.

  13. Tom January 7, 2014 at 10:36 am #

    Oh! And don’t forget Claudette Colbert in “It Happened One Night”.

  14. Mark Davis January 7, 2014 at 10:51 am #

    I agree with the general sentiment here, but I feel compelled to point out that the statistics supplied in the article are misleading, in fact almost meaningless.

    Saying that hitchhiking was a factor of some percentage (0.63 in this case) of all crimes in some state is irrelevant, since it doesn’t take into account the frequency of hitchhiking.

    Instead, the statistic that matters is what percentage of hitchhikers were involved in a crime compared to the overall crime rate. I suspect hitchhiking compares favorably as well from this point of view, but the article doesn’t discuss this.

  15. JOswald January 7, 2014 at 11:54 am #

    @Coasterfreak … You’re right! That is actually the movie I was thinking of and I thought 2007 seemed too recent. Didnt connect it was a remake. And you’re absolutely correct about Rutger. Amazing performance.

  16. lollipoplover January 7, 2014 at 12:01 pm #

    My brother hitchhiked a ride from his school to his girlfriend’s college (3 hours away) from a trucker who was inebriated. The truck driver slurred he could take him a few turnpike exits towards the college but was otherwise going a different way. My brother asked if he could help with the drive to which the trucker said “sure” and started to drink from a flask then passed out. He drove the truck all the way his girlfriend’s college, parked it in a student parking lot, and left the drunk trucker soundly asleep in the passenger seat.

  17. KC January 7, 2014 at 12:36 pm #

    We have the “slug lines” in the Bay Area as well, though around here we call it “casual carpooling.” I don’t commute in that direction, but I walk by a casual carpool pickup spot on my walk to work and there’s always plenty of people, men & women, out waiting for pickups. It’s a pretty popular way to commute.

    As for picking up hitchhikers, I was a teen in the 80s and grew with the hitchhiker as boogeyman idea so firmly ingrained that I have only once ever picked someone up. I was in college, driving home from a shopping center on a rainy night when I saw a woman in running clothes waving from the side of the road near the shopping center. She had sprained her ankle and couldn’t finish her run and needed a ride back to where she’d left her car.

    I felt a little weird about it but trusted my instincts and of course, there was absolutely no issue and she was very grateful to get out of the rain and to be able to get back home.

  18. Toby_in_AK January 7, 2014 at 12:40 pm #

    In Alaska, hitchhiking never completely went away. Especially for people who’ve lived her awhile, or grew up here, there is this expectation that when you see someone on the side of the road who needs help – you help them. It’s an unforgiving environment, and none of us want someone to die out there. Of course there’s the usual biases, if someone “looks shady” people might be more hesitant to help.

    I was a kid in the 80s, and remember seeing hitchhikers commonly. The number probably went down over the years since then but it’s still not uncommon to see them on the road between popular spots.

    When I visited Panama by myself in ’06, I ended up hitching on accident. I was just walking down the road out in the country when some guy pulled up in a VW bug and offered me a ride. He turned out to be a really interesting guy, a cuban expat who lived in panama, and he told me of a cuban bar in the city I should check out. I came home and told people this story, they thought I was absolutely nuts, but then they thought I was nuts for travelling by myself in the first place 😀

  19. Susan January 7, 2014 at 12:58 pm #

    My college roommate and I hitchhiked to the Grand Canyon (both of us young 19-year-old girls). We went to school in Flagstaff, AZ at NAU and just decided one day to go to the canyon. It was great. A guy with his two kids picked us up and even gave us a ride home. This was in 1994, so not all that long ago…

  20. Donna January 7, 2014 at 1:22 pm #

    People offered rides all the time in Samoa. In fact, every time I walked anywhere someone pulled up and offered a ride. It was miserably hot so more often than not I accepted. I am still alive to tell the tale. I also let a whole heap of teenage boys pile into the back of a pickup truck I was driving one day and drove them to the closest bus stop (about a mile from where they were).

    I think the shift from fear of hitch hiker to fear for hitch hiker is rather odd. I would feel safer hitch hiking than I would picking up a hitch hiker. Since homicidal maniacs and stranger rapists are extremely rare anyway, it would take a HUGE lack of luck to just happen to be hitch hiking on the same road that one uses to, say, commute to work. Even if the raping serial killer did nothing except drive around looking for hitch hikers 24/7 (when not raping and killing that is), the odds of us encountering each other would be so small as to not even be worth calculating.

    However, hitchhikers are not randomly on the road. They are there by choice, thus, increasing the possibility that they are there for a nefarious purpose. The odds of something bad happening are equal to the odds that any one particular hitch hiker is bad, while in the other scenario, you also have to factor in huge randomness that out of millions of drivers in the country the one serial killer driver will be the person to pick you up. It is still a very small chance though since most people are not raping serial killers.

  21. Jenny Islander January 7, 2014 at 1:34 pm #

    I would be interested in seeing statistics on the number of women who were expected to “pay” for the “favor” of a ride with sex and intimidated into “paying up” because the driver had control. That was the big scare story against hitchhiking when I was a teenager. However, due to the nature of the crime, reliable statistics would be hard to come by.

  22. Eric January 7, 2014 at 2:10 pm #

    In the summer of 1995, I was visiting Washington State. Long story short, I missed a connection with friends of friends who had promised me a ride, leaving me hitchhiking in the rain to the next town where I could get a bus.

    Who gave a ride to this soaking wet young man? A van driven by two Mexican women with two little girls. I was (and am) grateful.

  23. Jenna K. January 7, 2014 at 2:34 pm #

    When I was in high school, some friends and I went caving to a cave out in the middle of nowhere. There were seven or eight of us, I think, and my friend who drove had borrowed his parents’ Ford Centurion, a huge suburban with an extra row of seats in the back. On our way home, which was just in the nick of time to get us home before curfews, the driver picked up two hitchhikers, two men. They needed a ride to a nearby (okay, about 50 miles out of the way) small town because their car had broken down and they had a connection in that town to help them along their way. My friend drove them to that town, where we all got out and phoned our parents at a gas station payphone (this was in the mid-90’s before cell phones, mind you). I didn’t get home until about 2 am that night.

    I guess the main thing is that we were a bunch of 16 and 17-year-olds who picked up two grown men and took them way out of our way and everything turned out okay.

  24. anonymous this time January 7, 2014 at 2:37 pm #

    My 9-year-old was just asking me about this very issue the other day. My message to her was not to get into anyone’s car, unless you’re in big trouble and need help.

    I explained that once you’re in the car, it’s hard to get out again, if something goes weird. It’s hard to get a “read” on someone in the first few seconds before you get in, and then if you get the creepy feeling, you’re already in motion.

    I don’t know. There are places near here where hitchhiking is organized into actual “stops” (like bus stops) and people expect to wait there and get rides from “strangers.” But I can’t say I subscribe to the idea of advising my 9-year-old girl to hitch a ride whenever she feels tired of walking somewhere.

    Perhaps it’s my 1970s anti-hitch-hiker-propaganda exposure creeping up on me, but would we really advise our grade-schoolers to hitch a ride somewhere? And at what age would we say yes to that sort of thing? I have one child I can overpower physically, and one I cannot. To the one I cannot I would say, “sure, hitch a ride if you need one.” But to the one I can? I just don’t like the idea of her getting into a car with someone, and I’m not sure if I’d want her to when she’s older, either.

    Strange. I am about the most community-minded person I know, and I do have hangups about this.

  25. Papilio January 7, 2014 at 2:41 pm #

    “Over the summer I was driving with my younger son and we picked up a hitchhiker”

    I bet you thought the car was scarier than the hitchhiker anyway 😛

    I didn’t think twice about walking to school (or walking through the center of Amsterdam at 3am on Friday night), but I’d still hesitate about getting into the car of someone I don’t know. My aunt stopped hitchhiking because she didn’t like that drivers these days have one button to lock all doors.

  26. JB January 7, 2014 at 3:31 pm #

    I’ve been on both sides of the equation. Once with my sister, on a cold winter night we helped a guy who was stranded at a rest stop. We both felt a little weird about it, but it ended fine.
    And once when I was traveling in Mexico and missed the last bus back to the city, I hitched. It “could” have gone wrong, but didn’t. I still feel a little lucky.
    I rarely see anyone trying to hitch, and honestly I don’t have the time or energy to stop.

  27. Lin January 7, 2014 at 3:39 pm #

    I used to hitchhike all the time when I was in my late teens and early 20s. Mostly so I could save my train money for better things, sometimes because I was stuck and would have had to walk for miles and/or wait ages for public transport. I hitched from my home town in Belgium to Paris twice. With a friend those times, but usually I did it alone.

    The only incident that ever occurred on dozens of those trips was that a truck driver once propositioned me. I told him to pull over and let me out, he did, I was stuck in an awkward spot on the highway and it took me ages to get another lift. And I did also once refuse a lift because the driver looked totally dodgy.

    I’ve only once picked up a hitch hiker myself because usually my car’s too full and has a dog on the back seat. Otherwise I’d definitely do that more.

  28. LadyTL January 7, 2014 at 4:41 pm #

    I still hitchhike even as an adult. I started in high school and when nothing bad happened I continued. Now most people don’t stop and I accept that but I am always grateful to those who do. It makes all the difference on a cold night or a too hot day.

    What’s funny is the people who oppose me don’t even know of anything bad happening to a hitchhiker, it’s always phrased in what could have happened or what might.

  29. Steve January 7, 2014 at 5:27 pm #

    Until this post, I never thought about worst-first thinking being a big part of the hitchhiking-danger phenomenon. I was convinced by the media that hitch-hiking was and is a probable death sentence.

    Nevertheless, don’t you think there’s a realistic danger related to getting into a stranger’s car when all you know about the driver is he/she is willing to stop and pick you up? And if you’re the driver stopping for a stranger, all you know is that he/she is asking for a ride.

    Lenore, you have said before that it’s one thing for a Free Range Kid to TALK to a stranger, but something quite different to get in the stranger’s car.

    Like all examples, this hitch-hiking one covers a continuum. There can be so many variables that help us decide what we should do.

    Miriam’s story about her mom talking with the guy at at he airport and inviting him home did not strike me as a story that would fit what I call hitch-hiking. She had adequate time to talk to the guy and size him up. We all know that many clues about people and their personalities can be evaluated in a reasonably short time. A particular comment or facial expression can help you decide.

    I have hitched a ride only a couple of times. Neither situation was what I would call stereotypic “hitchhiking.” I think of “hitchhiking” as someone at the side of the road with a thumb out or a small sign indicating their need of a ride. In one of my hitching encounters, my vehicle had a problem and I was parked at a rest-stop. I looked around and assessed the people and vehicles parked in the area, then approached somebody. But even so, everything bad that I’d ever heard about hitchhiking weighted heavily on me during the entire experience…and yet, the experience turned out just fine!

    If you see a person hitching a ride standing by a car with the hood up, you can be fairly sure the guy is more interested in getting to a service station than anything else. So, again, risk assessment should play a part in any hitchhiking episode.

    My wife’s brother said he never had a problem getting a ride since he always dressed in decent clothes and didn’t look questionable.

    Herb Cohen, the famous negotiator, tells about his son hitching across the country. The young man prepared for the trip by altering a very large gas can to accommodate the clothing he would need. He dressed in nice clothes and apparently never had a problem getting rides. He even mentioned that his gas can was his suitcase after he was in a car and on his way. When I read that, I thought, “Wow, wouldn’t that make the driver a bit fearful?” But, then I thought, probably the overall amiability of the college kid put the driver at ease. Details matter.

  30. Papilio January 7, 2014 at 5:34 pm #

    Isn’t there an app or something for the hitchhiker community now anyway? As in ‘Hey guys I’m [here] (or will be here at xx o’clock) and need a ride to [there], can someone pick me up?’?
    Or was that a local thing? (I used to be convinced Join-The-Pipe.org was international, but no. Still cool water bottles though.)

  31. pentamom January 7, 2014 at 5:56 pm #

    My father literally hitchhiked his entire way through college in the late 40’s. He lived in a tiny village 60 miles north of Philly, and was going to pharmacy school at Temple. Every Sunday evening, he hitched down, stayed the week at a boarding house, and every Friday night he hitched back. He *had no other option.* He couldn’t afford to live in the city all the time, and couldn’t afford any kind of paid transportation such as a bus. So for three years (that’s what pharmacy school was back then) that’s what he did, every single week for 3/4 of the year.

  32. pentamom January 7, 2014 at 5:58 pm #

    I forgot to add, that would pretty much be unthinkable now, to expect an 18 year old to do that.

  33. Stephanie January 7, 2014 at 7:50 pm #

    What timing. I gave a ride to a young woman last night whose friend got into trouble and wasn’t able to drive her home. I was leaving the gym when she approached me, and I’ll admit I was somewhat reluctant and nervous about it. Still, it would have been a long walk for her, and not that bad a drive for me.

    I’ve been on the other side too, not deliberately. Had a car break down at night about five miles out of town before cell phone or call boxes were common. No houses all that near, and I was trying to decide what to do when a guy pulled up and offered me a ride. It was a scary decision, but I accepted because I knew better the guy who offered than the one who demanded, and sure enough, it turned out fine.

    Some ways, this goes along with how you teach kids to deal with strangers. It’s not just “hitchhiking (or picking up hitchhikers) is dangerous,” it’s be careful and pay attention to your instincts. Know the risks you’re taking and decide if you’re comfortable with it.

  34. Sara A. January 7, 2014 at 8:18 pm #

    When I worked in Yellowstone and Glacier National park we’d hitch places. This was in 2006 and 2008. Often times trails don’t loop, so we’d get to the other end walk to the road and stick out our thumbs. Most of the time other employees would be driving by and pick us up. Tourists don’t really do that. Other times we’d end up leaving at the same time as another group who’d offer us a lift back to the trail head.

  35. Steve Cournoyer January 7, 2014 at 8:28 pm #

    I’ll omit the gory details and provide a brief synopsis: Early 80’s, winter in Dec. night on the way home after attending a Xmas party,…lonely stretch of RT 95 in RI…car in the breakdown lane w/hood up and 4 way flashers on, a guy with a thumb out…me, Good Samaritan and past hitchhiker …it was a set up….I fought, suffered 33 stab wounds, a fractured skull, punctured lung and almost bled to death before I was found…270+ stitches, scars and a long recovery…drivers and hitchhikers are at risk to whatever a bad guy wants to do…the adventure you seek may not be the adventure you get…be cautious and safe…

  36. Kelly January 7, 2014 at 9:07 pm #

    This post really rings a chord with me, having done some hitchhiking(often alone, as a female) around Europe some years ago. In one case, a wonderful family in rural Finland gave me a ride and ended up taking me in for the night and treating me to the full sauna experience and a dinner including locally foraged and raised ingredients.

    Sadly, in our culture, I don’t get to “repay” the favor often enough, but I will pick up people during the day in certain circumstances, especially in more rural areas. It is unfortunate that somehow we can’t trust each other, when the chances of a bad outcome are very small and the chances of an interesting interaction are quite good. For example, a Japanese through-hiker I took back to the Appalachian trail was quite happy to save himself a few miles’ walk, and I quite enjoyed hearing about his experience. And it’s a good feeling to be able to help a soggy person waiting for a bus in the rain if you’re going the same way anyhow.

  37. marie January 7, 2014 at 9:50 pm #

    The kids and I picked up a hitchhiker in Texas once and recently in Kansas. The second time, they urged me to turn around and give the guy a ride. We did and he was a nice guy, trying to get home to see him mom over the holidays. When a panhandler approached us on Christmas Day, they were disappointed that I had no cash to give him. I like my kids a lot.

    When I was in college, I rode the city bus to campus and one morning a guy stopped at the bus stop and offered me a ride. I accepted and discovered that the inside passenger door handle was missing from my door. Hmm. The classic sign of a guy out to do harm! He dropped me off at school and asked me out. I accepted and we had a nice time–and he opened my car door for me. 🙂

    Steve, I’m so sorry for your terrible, terrible experience.

  38. Dee January 7, 2014 at 10:29 pm #

    Very interesting discussion! It was definitely way out of fashion in the ’80s – but that didn’t stop by diver’s ed teacher from picking one up WHILE WE WERE HAVING A LESSON! True story! He looked pretty skanky, too. I was in the back seat, while another student was driving so I got to sit with hi. I’ll admit that I was completely whigged out. Of course, had it happened now, parents would be up in arms and the driver’s ed teacher would have lost his job. (No great loss, he was a terrible teacher.) But while my mom though it weird, she did nothing.

    In the early 90s, I had car trouble in Kansas while driving a car from Colorado to Boston. I was trying to walk to an exit when a car stopped. A lovely Hispanic woman named Olga (again, true story) got out and offered to give me a ride. She said she was safe because she had kids in the car. She took me to the coffee shop where she worked and said the exit I was trying to get to had no services. A wonderful Good Samaritan story.

    And YES to everyone who commented on 1986’s The Hitcher. That movie freaked me out! Really one of the truly scariest movies I’ve seen. Like the best scary movies, it worked on your mind, not on endless gore.

  39. Reziac January 7, 2014 at 11:21 pm #

    I’ve hitchhiked. I’ve picked up hitchhikers. We’re all still alive to tell about it.

    Laws on hitchhiking:

    Note that some states prohibit it entirely, but others only prohibit doing so while “standing in the roadway” (which, where defined, is usually stated to be the vehicle traffic lanes, tho in ND includes the shoulder). This has everything to do with not being a hazard to traffic, and nothing to do with hitchhiking itself.

    (As a rule my truck is so full of crap that they have to ride in back, but people who really want a ride don’t care. I’ve ridden in the back of a truck, too.)

    And something interesting!

  40. double K January 8, 2014 at 1:36 am #

    My choices for getting home from private high school in the
    early ’70s: waiting three hours for the carpool, or taking
    public transit halfway and hitch-hiking the remaining eight
    miles. I frequently chose the latter. My parents knew and
    condoned it.

    In 1978 I hitch-hiked from New England to Vancouver, BC, then
    down to San Francisco, and back again. The next year I spent
    the summer hitch-hiking around the Northeast and Midwest.
    I’ve put many thousands of miles on my thumb.

    I could tell lots of stories, most of them good. I never had
    anything bad or even remotely creepy happen to me. Of course
    I’ve heard all the scary stories, but they were also from “a
    friend of a friend.”

    Despite my overwhelmingly positive experiences, I still hold
    the opinion that hitch-hiking is not a sport for women or
    children. I don’t believe in “one size fits all” thinking,
    so there may be exceptions, but they are rare.

  41. BeccaK January 8, 2014 at 5:18 am #

    We haven’t picked up a hitchhiker in years because there are so few of them around now. We did once pick up an elderly chap who, it slowly emerged, was not very sane (delusional rather dangerous) but, having gone out of our way for him for a few miles, when he tried to persuade us to go a bit further out of our way we said, No, chum, sorry, out at this petrol station. And he got out of the car with no problem.

    One wet night in a bus-less part of north Norfolk, with my baby in the car, I saw a young man hitching. I drove past. I felt so awful I turned round and did what I had been told NEVER to do, and gave him a lift. I couldn’t get him far on his way, but a mile or so was still 15 mins less in the wet and the dark.

    But I would like to know the % of hitchhikers/ lift givers who end up with a real problem. I suspect it’s very low. Nothing like facts for squashing objections.

  42. Kenny Felder January 8, 2014 at 5:41 am #

    Great point! I hadn’t quite thought about it that way, but I have had a lot of good experiences picking up hitchhikers. Many of them are fascinating people with fascinating stories.

  43. Dave January 8, 2014 at 10:03 am #

    I hitchhiked throughout High School and beyond. From Boston to Florida and out to Colorado. It was the way to travel and see the country with little money. Nothing ever happened except that I got to meet a number of interesting people. I also always picked up someone hitching. The thing to remember is that the crime level now is the same as it was then, late 70s early 80s. The only change is our fear level has increased.

  44. Babs January 8, 2014 at 2:22 pm #

    While you almost never hear of anyone hitching rides (or even see anyone doing such, for that matter), it was still a big deal when I was growing up, and of course we were scared silly into thinking that harm would come your way. So I never did — until I was in my early 20s. My friend and I were on our way to Nantucket, and her car broke down on 95 (Connecticut Turnpike). We managed to make it to a stop that was for both cars and trucks, and were going to call my friend’s parents to give us a lift home, or look for a nearby motel, then take a bus up north. Mind you, this was light-years before cellphones.

    While at the bus stop, I overheard one of the truckers saying he was headed to Boston. He appeared to be a decent sort (don’t ask me why, but I had good vibes) and I suggested to my friend that we ask the driver to give us a lift to Boston as well. And we did, and he gladly accommodated us. The ride up was uneventful, the driver and I chatted at length (I had learned he was a former FAA air traffic controller who was laid off in the early 80s, then switched to trucking to support his family), and he dropped us off at the nearest hotel on the Boston city limits — he didn’t even accept any cash or anything for his deed. I still shake my head that I actually took this risk (my mother would have died a thousand deaths if she ever knew!) but I’ve also learned over the years that there are a lot of nice people in the world as well.

  45. Rae January 8, 2014 at 2:34 pm #

    I used to pick up hitchhikers all the time when I was in High School and college (late 80’s), so would my mom. For some reason she wasn’t afraid of picking up a hitchhiker, but thought that actually hitchhiking was very dangerous! Anyway, I started working summers in Alaska when I was in college and up there it is a pretty normal way to get around. I hitched and picked up hitchers all the time. People rarely passed me and I rarely passed anyone.

  46. Warren January 8, 2014 at 4:13 pm #

    Since when has hitchiking been illegal? On some highways it is illegal, under traffic laws, but the act itself is not illegal. And most cops only pick up the ones on the highway, and drop them at the next exit, reminding them to stay off certain highways.

    Hitchhiking died because of fear mongering media, and paranoid worst first thinking, and for no other reasons.

  47. Meg January 8, 2014 at 8:15 pm #

    As an occasional modern-day hitchhiker (taking the car to the repair shop or up the mountain with my skis), I’d say the fear has not dampened being picked up. Older women usually pick me up just “to save my life” and give me a good talking to.

  48. Rachele January 8, 2014 at 9:02 pm #

    A moving vehicle seems like a relatively safe place to be with a stranger because it’s likely neither of you want to die even if one of you happens to be in the mood to attack a random stranger. The serial killer scenario isn’t exactly compatible with driving at high speeds. It’s hard to drive and stab/strangle/shoot someone (or fend off an attacker) at the same time. They’d have to drive me to a remote, out of the way location, which I’m not going to let anybody do without putting up a fight. If I’m at risk, I’m going to crash the car. I would think there are much easier ways to murder/rape people.

  49. Tom January 9, 2014 at 10:27 am #

    I’m suprised no one mentioned Kerouac.

    A rather long, but interesting essay on hitchiking including its demise is here:


  50. Steve January 9, 2014 at 3:30 pm #

    I work on a Navy base with a pretty long entry road, about two miles. I see young sailors walking from the front gate all the time, and I frequently offer them a ride, although they *never* have a thumb stuck out, requesting a ride. They are always grateful and mildly surprised that I stopped.

    On one rainy occasion, I asked about this: “why didn’t you just flag someone down for a ride?” The young man replied, that it was dangerous to hitch-hike! On a well-patrolled military base, and him six foot-two and very healthy. Truly, the worst-first thinking has most people brainwashed.

  51. Olive January 9, 2014 at 9:39 pm #

    My parents both hitch hiked their way around Europe in the 70s, occasionally sleeping in a bush if they were caught out. Sounded like a great adventure! We also picked up many hitchhikers who were then subjected to the many questions of five children. They pretty much always stopped if the hitchhiker was a woman because the felt better knowing they were giving her a safe ride. My dad also completely relied on hitchhiking to get back to our vehicle after we completed long backpacking trips in the mountains. Often us kids were left at some location to fend for ourselves while he went to get the car. Fun times! I’m sure he didn’t look or smell too appealing either after emerging from two weeks in the mountains…

  52. parallel January 10, 2014 at 1:21 am #

    Just the other day I saw a man walking on the side of the road, and the car in front of us pulled over and picked him up. It sparked a discussion with my mother about if I would ever do the same.

    To which I honestly had to say I don’t know. I DO believe crime rates are down, etc. etc. But I think I would indeed feel nervous. She asked if the gender would make a difference (meaning would I feel more comfortable picking up a woman.) And maybe it would, even if that’s not very fair. I also think appearance would make a difference…I was thinking of the strange, wild-eyed look so many people who do make the news tend to have.

    One of my aunts was homeless for quite some time, and frequently accepted rides from strangers. She never hurt anyone, and no one ever hurt her (to add she had untreated schizophrenia, which would have made her particularly vulnerable, and statically more likely than the general population to encounter abuse.)

    My mother in her youth did pick up people…and continued to do after she was raped by a man she herself accepted a ride from. She didn’t seem to feel the hitchhiking was the major factor so much as the fact that it was a cold night and pouring rain, and she had just finished working the late night shift. So she was tired and desperate, and because of it accepted the first offer she got when normally she would have been paying more attention to her instincts.

  53. tdr January 10, 2014 at 6:55 am #

    I have given rides to people I don’t know. One was a very young woman holding a toddler on a snowy day — she was trying to get her kid to daycare. One was a guy waiting at a bus stop in my neighborhood on a freezing cold day with no gloves. He was trying to get to school. I think most people who hitchhike are like these people — in need of a ride and kind of desparate due to weather or no money.

    I hitchhiked from Rome to Florence in the mid-80’s and had a glorious adventure. Not for a family publication. 🙂

  54. John January 10, 2014 at 1:08 pm #

    When I worked and lived in Israel from 1992-1995 for the U.S. Government, hitchhiking was very common there especially for military people. It was even common for kids as young as 12 to hitchhike! I remember picking up a group of kids. Not sure if they were Arab Israelis or Jewish Israelis as their English was spotty at best. But I got them to their destination safe and sound! Israel was a very free-range kid place back in the 90s and I hope it’s still that way. But since Israel is a close ally of America and adopts many of our customs, perhaps they also adopted our sense of paranoia regarding children. Hopefully that has not happened!

  55. In the Trenches January 10, 2014 at 8:03 pm #

    Hitching in Ireland is still the norm. I’ve walked many times down byways, enjoying the weather, when someone (often on a tractor) offered me a lift (note to those hitching in Ireland: don’t ask for a ride….different connotations!) . I’ve said, “No, thanks; I’m enjoying the walk,” but been convinced after a very warm and inviting insistent farmer kept talking with me as I walked. I’ve hitched in the States, too, and had good experiences. In Tunisia, ditto. My wife and mother have both hitched extensively throughout the States, and though my wife had a few ‘weird’ and uncomfortable moments, she was happily never in danger, and overall her experiences are overwhelmingly positive. In general, remember, all around the world, people are pretty good.

  56. Jeff Wegerson January 11, 2014 at 2:36 am #

    Sorry I’m late to the party.

    I hitched for years 68 through 77. No incidents. All parts of the country but the south. I was amazed by the diversity of people who picked me up. (Well not African-American nor did I see AAs hitching. I assume racism pretty much forecloses that option in the U.S.) I got rides from lots of woman as well. After I got married my wife cautioned me to never mention to our girls that I hitch-hiked. She was afraid that they might think they could try it themselves. And to be honest I do know a woman who got assaulted hitching.

    Then in the last few years I have been backpacking with my now grown daughter, mid-twenties. In three situations I decided that the best way to organize our trip was to get a ride to the start of our trip and hitch-hike back. It was the Continental Divide Trail in New Mexico and Colorado.

    It turns out that the hitch-hiking culture is a regular part of the long trail hike experience and is alive and well. In many places along the 3,000 mile trail you reach a road after four to seven days of hiking and you are out of food and down the road 5, 10 or 15 miles is a town with a grocery or post office where your resupply package awaits. And the way you get there is to hitch. And we are talking many lone hiking women as well.

    In my days of hitching I knew that often the most desolate places are best for getting a ride. As you get closer to civilization the odds of getting a ride from a particular drop quickly. While maybe 1 in 10 cars out in nowhere will give you a ride once you reach an interstate the rate can drop to 1 in a 100. Partly it’s the same dynamic as befalls someone needing help when their car breaks down. Everyone assumes one of the many others will stop.

    And indeed that’s how it worked hitching with my daughter. We did have a minor incident in New Mexico. A car with dark windows and booming Hispanic music slowed and pulled over as if to pick us up but then as we walked towards the car they sped away. I told my daughter that if they came back to say something to them in her so-so Spanish.

    They didn’t come back but later in the trip we got picked up by two Hispanic gentlemen who pretty much spoke only Spanish. After we got in she remembered my request from before and proceeded to talk more Spanish that I had ever heard from her before. The ride turned out to be very nice.

    Eventually we got to the town that sold itself to a tv game show. Truth or Consequences used to be Hot Springs, New Mexico. The game show offered some incentive to a town that would change their name to that of the game show. Anyway we got stuck there at an on-ramp to the interstate as car after car passed without giving us a ride. Like I said sometimes it’s harder in the busier places to get a ride.

    Of course we were doing a lot more than get from the trail to the nearest town for resupply. We were trying to get all the way to Albuquerque. But still it was very interesting for me to see that really hitch-hiking is pretty much the same now as the 60s-70s. As for the legality, I think it remained pretty much legal everywhere, certainly everywhere I traveled. Interestingly the place where I had trouble was Colorado. There in the 60s it was totally illegal. I was told that some relative of the Coors beer family had been killed by a hitch-hiker so it was out-lawed. But then something interesting happened in the early 70s when the legalized it there. Not only legalized it but allowed hitch-hikers to stand at the top of the entrance ramps where the cars on the interstate could see and stop for you. Colorado changed from one of the worst places to hitch to one of the best, just like that.

  57. Tsu Dho Nimh January 11, 2014 at 3:25 pm #

    The last time I picked up a rider … he wasn’t hitchng, he was riding a bicycle in a heavy thunderstorm along AZ 260 that was getting worse and headed for a long downhill twisty section with no shoulders. We tied his bike to my trailer and I dropped him off where his route split from mine, about 80 miles away.

    Nice kid, art student, decided that to be a better artist he needed to see things worth painting. We had a lovely time.

    Funniest hitchhiking experience. My parents and I (I was in HS) picked up an elderly Navajo couple on the rez as we were going into town to buy groceries and do laundry. They were going to the clinic – spoke no English, but pointed where they wanted to be let off.

    We came out of the (only) market and found them waiting by our car for a ride back.

  58. Lalouve January 13, 2014 at 2:13 pm #

    I’ve hitched – alone and female – all over the place with no problems at all and no scary experiences. Admittedly I am a martial artist but the drivers didn’t know that.
    The main reason I quit was that people driving fast and recklessly seem extra inclined to pick up hitchers, perhaps to show off to, and I didn’t want to be in an accident. Hitching is still my default solution for missed buses, though.