Hitchhiking (also known as thumbing, hitching, or autostop) is a means of transportation that is gained by asking people, usually strangers, for a ride in their automobile or other vehicle. A ride is usually, but not always, free.
- Signaling method
- Legal status
- United States
- In popular culture
- Notable hitchhikers
Itinerants have also used hitchhiking as a primary mode of travel for the better part of the last century, and continue to do so today.
The hitchhikers' methods of signaling to drivers differ around the world. Many hitchhikers use various hand signals.
If the hitchhiker wishes to indicate that he needs a ride, he may simply make a physical gesture or display a written sign. In North America, United Kingdom and most of Europe, the gesture involves extending the arm toward the road and sticking the thumb of the outstretched hand upward with the hand closed.
For example, in the US and UK, they point their thumb up. In some African countries, the hand is held still with the palm facing upwards. In other parts of the world, it is more common to use a gesture where the index finger is pointed at the road.
Hitchhiking is a historically common (autonomous) practice worldwide and hence there are very few places in the world where laws exist to restrict it. However, a minority of countries have laws that restrict hitchhiking at certain locations. In the United States, for example, some local governments have laws outlawing hitchhiking, on the basis of drivers' and hitchhikers' safety. In 1946, New Jersey arrested and imprisoned a hitchhiker, leading to intervention by the American Civil Liberties Union. In Canada, several highways have restrictions on hitchhiking, particularly in British Columbia and the 400-series highways in Ontario. In all countries in Europe, it is legal to hitchhike, and in some places even encouraged. However, worldwide, even where hitchhiking is permitted, laws forbid hitchhiking where pedestrians are banned, such as the Autobahn (Germany), Autostrade (Italy), motorways (United Kingdom and continental Europe), or interstate highways (United States), although hitchhikers often obtain rides at entrances and truck stops where it is legal at least throughout Europe.
In 2011, Freakonomics Radio reviewed sparse data about hitchhiking and attributed the decline since the 1970s, at least in North America, to a number of factors including lower air travel costs due to deregulation, the presence of more money in the economy to pay for travel, more numerous and more reliable cars, and a lack of trust/fear of strangers. Fear of hitchhiking is thought to have been spurred by movies such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and a few real stories of imperiled passengers, notably the kidnapping of Colleen Stan in California. See § Safety, below.
Julian Portis points out that the rise of faster highways, such as freeways, motorways, and expressways, has made hitchhiking more difficult. He adds:
The real danger of hitchhiking has most likely remained relatively constant, but the general perception of this danger has increased. ... [O]ur national tolerance for danger has gone down: things that we previously saw as reasonably safe suddenly appeared imminently threatening. This trend is not just isolated to the world of hitchhiking; it has become a pernicious artifact throughout the American cultural conscience.
Some British researchers discuss reasons for hitchhiking's decline in the UK, and possible means of reviving it in safer and more-organized forms.
In recent years, hitchhikers themselves have started seeing efforts to strengthen the hitchhiking community. One example is the annual Hitchgathering, an event organized by the hitchhikers, for the hitchhikers. There now are websites like hitchwiki and hitchbase, which are platforms for hitchhikers to share tips and provide a way of looking up good hitchhiking spots around the world.
Not much data is available regarding the safety of hitchhiking. Compiling good safety data requires counting hitchhikers, counting rides, and counting problems: a difficult task.
Two studies on the topic include a 1974 California Highway Patrol study and a 1989 German federal police study. The California study found that hitchhikers were not disproportionately likely to be victims of crime. The German study concluded that the actual risk is much lower than the publicly perceived risk, and the authors did not advise against hitchhiking in general. They found that in some cases there were verbal disputes and inappropriate comments, but physical attacks were very rare.
Recommended safety practices include:
In Cuba, picking up hitchhikers is mandatory for government vehicles, if passenger space is available. Hitchhiking is encouraged, as there are few cars, and designated hitchhiking spots are used. Waiting riders are picked up on a first come, first go basis.
In Israel, hitchhiking is commonplace at designated locations called trempiyadas (טרמפיאדה in Hebrew, derived from the “German” trampen). Travelers soliciting rides, called trempists, wait at trempiyadas, typically junctions of highways or main roads outside of a city.
In Nepal, hitchhiking is very common in rural areas. Many do not own cars so hitchhiking is a common practice especially in and around villages.
In the Netherlands, hitchhiking is legal and there are official signs where one may wait for a ride. These designated hitchhiking locations are called liftershalte or liftplaats in Dutch, and they are particularly common in university towns.
Hitchhiking in Poland has a long history and is still popular. It was legalised and formalised in 1957 so hitchhikers could buy booklets including coupons from travel agencies. These coupons were given to drivers who took hitchhikers. By the end of each season drivers who collected the highest number of coupons could exchange them for prizes, and others took part in a lottery. This so-called "Akcja Autostop" was popular till the end of the 1970s, but the sale of the booklet was discontinued in 1995.
Hitchhiking in Ireland is legal, unless it takes place on motorways. However, a backpacker will most likely still get a lift if there is enough space for the car to park. Local police (Gardai) usually let backpackers get away with a verbal warning.
Hitchhiking became a common method of traveling during the Great Depression.
However, warnings of the potential dangers of picking up hitchhikers were publicized to drivers, who were advised that some hitchhikers would rob the driver who picked them up and, in some cases, sexually assault or murder them. Other warnings were publicized to the hitchhikers themselves, alerting them to the same types of crimes being carried out by drivers. Still, hitchhiking was part of the American psyche and many people continued to stick out their thumbs, even in states where the practice had been outlawed.
Today, hitchhiking is legal in 44 of the 50 states, provided that the hitchhiker is not standing in the roadway or otherwise hindering the normal flow of traffic. Even in states where hitchhiking is illegal, hitchhikers are rarely ticketed. For example, the Wyoming Highway Patrol approached 524 hitchhikers in 2010, but only eight of them were cited (hitchhiking was subsequently legalized in Wyoming in 2013).
In several urban areas, a variation of hitchhiking called slugging occurs, motivated by HOV lanes.
In popular culture