Back in the 1970s, motorway junctions were hives of hitching activity, with lines of young people with a rucksack and a piece of cardboard waiting for a free ride. Hitchhiking was so normal and accepted that Douglas Adams opined that, one day, we’d be able to do it inter-galactically.
Times have changed. An AA Populus poll found that only 1 per cent of drivers in the UK had hitchhiked themselves and only 1 per cent of drivers were very likely to stop to give hitchhikers a ride. It would take Paul Simon a lot longer than four days to hitchhike from Saginaw now, given the current reluctance of drivers to pick up optimistic roadside hopefuls.
With rising petrol prices, the spiralling costs of using public transport and increased awareness that cars contribute to climate change, you’d think spontaneous car sharing would be the clean, green choice. So why has hitching died?
Many reasons. For one, more and more households own cars, making it less likely we need to stand by the side of the road hoping to get in one.
Lower air fares have made the romantic appeal of hitching obsolete, too. Why hitch round Scotland when you can fly to Biarritz for not much more than a pint of milk?
Personal safety fears have also contributed to the decline in hitchhiking. It is seen not just as socially unorthodox, but tantamount to a kamikaze mission, especially if you’re a woman on your own. Of course it is possible that if you get into a succession of strangers’ cars then one will contain an axe-wielding homicidal maniac. How likely is it? There’s very little research. An ancient (1974) California Highway Patrol report found that: “the results of this study do not show that hitchhikers are over represented in crimes or accidents beyond their numbers.” Still, it’s hard not to remember, if you are standing on a rain-sodden roadside, that Fred and Rosemary West found some of their victims by abducting hitchhikers.
Has technology been part of the decline? Increased mobile phone ownership should have made it significantly safer –“I’m just texting the licence plate to my mum” — yet hitching seems to have collapsed just as mobiles blossomed. Even websites, such as hitchhikers.org, that used to exist to help out hitchers have vanished.
Perhaps, as sat-navs became ubiquitous, 21st-century drivers no longer need a useful passenger to read a map. Now that you can listen to a talking book or podcast while on the move, drivers don’t need someone in the seat next to them to chat to, either.
As some who have studied the topic suggest, the vanishing hitchhiker may be part of a more fundamental shift in our attitudes, in which “a sense of obligation and reciprocity” has been lost. Margaret Thatcher told us, after all, that there is no such thing as society.
Turns out, we believed her.