Frequently asked questions about hitchhiking

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Is hitchhiking illegal?

People often assume that it must be mostly because it has declined as a popular mode of transport amongst the 16-24 age group in many countries. Official travel organisations may also create this impression and express caution because of legal liability issues (for instance, Lonely Planet used to support hitchhiking until the early 1990s but now no longer recommends it).

However, according to www.hitchwiki.org the only country where there is an outright ban is North Korea. In many countries it is forbidden to walk on the sides of specific types of fast roads such as motorways (and there will be a point on the slip road or on-ramps after which it is illegal). In America for instance, there is a perception that it is illegal everywhere, because in most states there are long standing laws about not standing in the highway and signalling for a lift. These overlap with vagrancy laws which were formalised in the 1930s and updated in many states in the post-World War Two era. Only in a handful of US states is it actually illegal everywhere: currently Utah, Idaho, New Jersey and Nevada. More positively, Wyoming actually made it legal in 2013 thanks to a sympathetic Senator, Leyland Christiansen. United States of America - Hitchwiki: the Hitchhiker's guide to Hitchhiking

In many places in the world hitchhiking is one option in a transport continuum of informal taxis and community minibuses, with different forms of payment and etiquette. Occasionally hitchhiking becomes linked to issues of taxation if it is common practice to pay a driver, such as in Romania in 2014 when the government clamped down on this. In theory this led to hitchhiking being outlawed by default, although these kind of circumstances are difficult to monitor and people are rarely deterred if it is part of local culture. More seriously, in some places where it is common to take taxis to work, such as the Eastern Cape, RSA, there have been incidents where those choosing to hitchhike (because of fare increases) have needed the protection of the authorities when so-called ‘taxi wars’ have erupted and hitchhikers been attacked.

The legality of crossing international borders on foot can sometimes be tricky because it seems unusual or becomes entangled with the politics of migration and issues of people trafficking. However, journeys between European countries who are part of the Schengen Agreement should be less problematic. Riding in lorries is often perceived to be illegal because of insurance issues in the haulage industry (that the driver is not covered for passengers in the event of an incident) but this varies enormously and drivers often flout regulations for the sake of company and to relieve boredom. Insurance rules are sometimes given as a reason for the decline in hitchhiking but this seems unlikely in itself, although it may contribute to difficulties to get lifts in some countries (in Spain drivers cannot carry hitchhikers under any circumstances).

Since 2019, the Corona virus has affected travelling in public and there have been potential legal issues concerning whether one can accompany a stranger (rather than a family member) in their vehicle. Hitchhiking and Corona - Hitchwiki: the Hitchhiker's guide to Hitchhiking

The best advice is to prepare in advance when travelling in a new place by checking with one of the main hitchhiking or independent travellers’ websites.

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Does hitchhiking still work?

Yes and today there are different types of hitchhiking each with their own etiquette. Formally, there is something called ‘casual carpooling’ (often called ‘slugging’) in the Bay area of San Francisco, where people share transport to access High Occupancy Vehicle Lanes. It has been going since 1990 and there are special pull-in areas for drivers to collect passengers. Similar schemes exist in Washington DC and in Jakarta (Indonesia) as a way of dealing with excessive congestion. It is a method of car sharing that retains the spontaneity of conversing with strangers and yet feels safe, socially productive and environmentally responsible.

 

Traditional ‘classic’ hitchhiking continues too, even in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Judging from online posts such as those at Hitchhiking and any other vagabond traveler-related stuff (reddit.com) securing lifts continues to be possible. Anecdotal evidence seemed to suggest that after the lockdowns of 2020 there was a mixed reception to those hitchhiking, with some debate as to whether one should always wear a mask out of respect to the driver. There were also legal issues in some places regarding travelling with people not in one’s social ‘bubble’. However many hitchers reported increased acts of generosity, perhaps linked to the mutual aid and added empathy for others produced by the epidemic.

Hitchhiking continues to work away from the Western media eye which tends to see it as always linked to a particular lifestyle, ‘rite of passage’ or as the choice mode of independent travellers. However in many countries where people have limited access to public transport and cannot afford private cars, forms of hitchhiking and lift sharing are often a normal part of the daily routine of going to work, visiting people, accessing services. In Cuba for instance there has been an organised hitchhiking system since 1990 which began as a transport innovation in the wake of the reduction of oil supplies after the Soviet Union collapsed. With little in the way of private transport in the country, this continues as a way of life for young and old alike in urban and rural settings.

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Why did hitchhiking stop?

 

It didn’t! In many countries, especially those in Europe, North America and Oceania, the numbers fell steadily during the 1980s, largely because of rising car ownership and the fact that hitchhiking as an activity attached to alternative ways of living or a specific social scene (e.g. music festivals) also declined. This had the effect of reducing the ‘cultural capacity’ or the transmission of knowledge and outlook between generations or communities, such as that which had occurred when the 1940s ‘war time’ hitchhikers became the lift givers to the ‘baby boomer’ travellers of the roads of the 1960s. Hitchhiking therefore became a ‘niche’ activity in the West, but continues to be structurally supported in some countries, such as the Netherlands and Germany, where planners see it as part of a sustainable transport mix and provide ‘liftplaatz’ and ‘mitfahrbank’ initiatives.

Much debate continues as to whether the falling numbers can also be attributed to cultural changes in the West, as the time frame parallels the rise of the neo-liberal economic project of the Thatcher and Reagan era with its emphasis on individualism and consumerism rather than social solidarity and collective organisation. It is probable that this cultural revolution reinforced rather than facilitated the decline of hitchhiking – since the statistics on car ownership are difficult to refute and also that other forms of mobility such as subsidised student transport on rail and coaches became more prevalent. A similar argument might be made regarding public anxiety about the potential dangers of hitchhiking: whilst the globalisation of negative news stories about attacks on hitchhikers and backpackers had an impact on perception (possibly assisted by the horror and road movie genre, eg. The Hitcher, Wolf Creek), there is no evidence to suggest that it had become more risky.

Hitchhiking also declined numerically in the former communist world, again linked to greater prosperity in some sectors of society. However, the long legacy of hitchhiking as part of travel adventure, mountaineering and scientific expeditions in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc has meant that there is still a notable organisational structure to hitchhiking. Many hitchhiking clubs exist today, including the Vilnius Hitchhiking Club, the Moscow-based Academy of Free Travel and the St Petersburg Autostop League (PASL) . Often there has been an overlap with outdoor pursuits such as mountaineering and orienteering. Today many hitchhikers in Europe take part in races such as Tramprennen

Many people see the value of a hitchhiking revival, utilising technology to allay safety fears and to integrate it into the sustainable transport mix to help decarbonise the transport system and reduce gridlock and pollution in cities.

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Who invented hitchhiking?

Hitchhiking is part of the history of informal transport mutual aid and goes back as long as there have been negotiations to share journeys with strangers. There are claims for forms of hitchhiking in the Bible, in the Odyssey, in medieval pilgrimages and in the writings of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. Most discussions about the modern origins of hitchhiking centre around the differences and similarities between catching a ride as an itinerant worker on the back of a horse drawn transport and the early years of the automobile and those who saw the possibility for a new way of adventurous travel. Many of the associations of the words ‘hitch’ tend to be agricultural or equine related (‘hitching posts’ for animals) and the use of the thumb is often seen to be similarly derived. The origins of the thumb to signal for lifts are vague, probably around 1920 in the US, but the practice of hailing rides was becoming a novelty item in newspapers during 1921-2 even though the specifics of the gestures employed are not clear. The actual word ‘hitchhiking’ dates from an article written by a columnist called The Drifter on 19th September 1923 in the Nation magazine and there have been a number of attempts to identify the first hitchhiker of the motor age.

The usual claims are for the writer Vachel Lindsay whilst on a walking tour in 1912 (although he accepted rides rather than solicited them, it seems) and the bee keeper and clergyman Tickner Edwardes whose 1909 journey across two hundred miles of rural England is documented in the book Lift Luck on Southern Roads (1910). Both of these writers did not like automobiles. In Driving with strangers I make the point that the 800 mile journey of Charles Brown Jr in October 1916 between Fort Wayne Indiana and New York City is a better indication of the start of hitching in the motor age. This is because of his visualisation of being able to cross a big distance by negotiating lifts and engaging in conversation with strangers. Brown’s journey was rediscovered and placed in hitchhiking history by Irv Thomas (see his 2004 memoir Derelict Days) who argued that there was something unique about believing it was possible to enter the private space of another traveller and have something to share.

Some claims have been made suggesting that ‘lorry hopping’ by soldiers in World War 1 is a form of hitchhiking, although given the context of conflict it seems hard to see this as anything other than a patriotic taxi service with a ride guaranteed.

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How safe is hitchhiking? 

Compared to popular perceptions probably very safe, but this depends who you are and where you are. It would be wise to read the substantial advice compiled at  https://hitchwiki.org/en/Hitchhiker%27s_safety

There are some excellent female perspectives on travel and risk such as: ‘40 tips: what does it take to be a single woman hitchhiker?’ by Ana Bakran, author of What's wrong with you?

There has been very little research done on safety, so most proclamations about dangers are rhetorical and statistically unfounded (which is not to minimise the seriousness of the occasional incident). The two main studies are highly favourable in terms of relationship between numbers of hitchhiking journeys and serious incidents. They are, however, rather old and represent a time when far more people were on the road and there was greater knowledge and awareness of hitchhiking in Western societies in particular.  This said, the additional safety precautions that are possible now with mobile telecommunications may offset any cultural unfamiliarity or initial nervousness.    

1. Fiedler, Joachim, Rolf Hoppe and Peter Berninghaus. Anhalterwesen und Anhaltergefahren: unter besonderer Berücksichtigung des ‘Kurztrampens’ [Hitchhikers and hitchhiking from the specific perspective of shorter journeys]. Wiesbaden: BKA Bundeskriminalamt, 1988. See discussion of this document in zeitonline 6 July1990

2. Pudinski, W., 1974; California Crimes and Accidents Associated with Hitch-hiking, California Highway Patrol, Operational Analysis Section (archived by Bernd Wechner)