One of my favorite books is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (Notably, the cover of the fictitious guide contains the admonishment, “Don’t Panic!” which is especially good advice these days.) In 1979 when it was published, hitchhiking was still a thing; now younger generations may not understand what the title of the book is referring to.
As a child in the 70s, I remember hitchhikers being a common sight and sometimes asking my parents to pick them up (they never did). That’s no longer the case — I haven’t seen a hitchhiker in decades. Where did all the hitchhikers go?
Hitchhiking has died off due to a combination of factors:
1. More people own cars
In 1960, nearly 60% of US households only owned one car, and 20% didn’t own a single car. Compare that to 2010, when 60% of households had two or more cars. Lower car ownership translates to more hitchhiking, and higher car ownership translates into less hitchhiking. Makes sense.
2. Hitchhiking is discouraged or illegal
The rise of the Interstate highway system negatively impacted hitchhiking due to the speed of cars traveling, making it harder to safely stop and pick up a hitchhiker and because walking along Interstates is illegal. Plus, most states have passed laws limiting or outlawing hitchhiking.
3. Fear that it’s dangerous
When I’d ask my parents if we could pick up a hitchhiker, they would reply, “never pick up a hitchhiker — it’s dangerous.” Through horror movies such as the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, news reports of high profile hitchhiker incidents like that of Colleen Stan, and law enforcement scare tactics (like the picture at the top of this post), societal views of the safety of hitchhiking shifted.
This point reminds me of a joke:
Hitchhiker: “Thanks for picking me up.”
Driver: “No, problem. Glad to do it.”
Hitchhiker: “One question though, how do you know that I’m not a serial killer?”
Driver: “Because the odds of two serial killers being in the same car is infinitesimally small.”
But, the dangerousness of hitchhiking is overstated. This study by the California Highway Patrol in 1974 found that “the results … do not show that hitchhikers are over-represented in crimes or accidents beyond their numbers.”
When we visited Alaska a few years ago, we were told that in the winter it is illegal NOT to pick up hitchhikers, since people could easily die from exposure. I assume that is still the case.
Hitching is still alive on Orcas Island.
That mischaracterization of others you don’t know personally plus shows like “America’s Most Wanted” that proliferated then along with Reagan’s “don’t speak ill of a fellow republican” implying you should speak ill of democrats and independents putting party above our common americanness which subsequently made it easy for Gingrich and Limbaugh to convince so many that the other party is the enemy. No wonder we now have polarization to the extent that people wearing t-shirts saying, “I’d rather be Russian than a Democrat”.
I hitchhiked quite a bit from NYC/ NJ , particularly to mid-West, in early ‘60’s as a Naval Academy Mid. Often with another Classmate. Never experienced a problem and met some interesting people/ conversationalists. Since we didn’t have spare family cars in those days, got us where we wanted to go. However, concern over safety/ crime killed the thought of HH in this country.
To this day, hitchhiking still popular in Europe, where people are generally less violent and Hahn is safer.
I hitchhiked across Canada and across Europe more than a few times in the 1970s – often times by myself (my mother never knew!). . I never met a serial killer and I can mostly remember generous, interesting people. Some who became lifelong friends. Anyway, I was just in the south of France near Quillan and I saw two young people with their thumbs out at the side of the road. It still happens. I wasn’t driving, and the driver was definitely not interested in picking those kids up. I hope they got a ride.