In 1950, Pete Koltnow had just graduated college and needed to get from New York to Yuma, Arizona, where he was due to start a new job. He had no car, so he hitchhiked nearly 2,500 miles, flagging ride after ride from total strangers.
"Back to bumpy seats and the open road," he wrote to his girlfriend Dot Witter from Villa Ridge, Missouri. "Trucks are kindest to me."
Koltnow ultimately got to Yuma in a few days. Years later, the series of postcards he sent to Witter became part of a Smithsonian exhibition on transportation history. But that's not because his trip was at all unusual — it's because the postcards are a remarkably detailed record of a once-routine transportation mode that has essentially vanished.
Nowadays, hitchhiking is perceived as dangerous, and few drivers are willing to pick someone up. Police departments discourage it, and many states explicitly ban it. Most hitchhikers have no other options, and do so as a last resort.
"Dating back to the Depression and World War II, it used to be very normal to see someone sticking their thumb out and pick them up," says Alan Pisarski, a transportation researcher. "We lost that somewhere along the way."
For people too young to remember the age of hitchhiking, it brings up a perplexing question: what happened?
More people own cars — and fewer need to hitchhike
Most experts agree that one of the biggest factors in the decline of hitchhiking has nothing to do with fear of crime. "Probably the most important thing is the huge growth we've seen in car ownership," says David Smith, a British sociologist who's studied hitchhiking trends.
Since the 1960s, the percentage of US households that own cars has steadily increased — and the proportion of those with multiple cars has grown even faster:
Over the past couple of decades, as cars have lasted longer and gotten cheaper, this trend has extended to lower-income families.
It all adds up to a much smaller percentage of the population needing to hitchhike in the first place. In many developing countries, on the other hand, far fewer people own cars, and hitchhiking is still commonplace.
Interstates and police departments discouraged hitching
During this same period, the Interstate Highway System was built, connecting most of America's big cities with much faster roads that became the basis for most long-distance travel.
While hitchhiking isn't explicitly banned on all interstates, laws prohibit pedestrians from walking along side them, so getting a ride is much more difficult. Motorists that previously passed through small towns on state routes now whiz across the country on highways, stopping mostly at exits or rest stops.
Meanwhile, a few states have made hitchhiking entirely illegal, while others have banned it on highways. The vast majority of states permit it, but have laws prohibiting hitchhikers from standing on the road itself (some permit them to stand on the shoulder, while others are unclear):
While these laws aren't always enforced, Pisarski says they've made hitching riskier and served as a deterrent.
Law enforcement used scare tactics to make it seem dangerous
Starting in the 1960s and '70s, some of the first laws against hitching were passed, and local and federal law enforcement agencies began using scare tactics to get both drivers and hitchhikers to stop doing it. This 1973 FBI poster, for instance, warned drivers that a hitcher might be a "sex maniac" or a "vicious murderer":
Other campaigns emphasized the risks to women — and implicitly suggested they'd be blamed for anything that happened to them. "Police officers at Rutgers University handed out cards to hitchhiking women that read, 'If I were a rapist, you’d be in trouble,'" Ginger Strand, author of Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate, recounted in a recent New York Times op-ed.
Combine this with a handful of horror movies involving hitchhiking murderers, as well as high-profile murder victims who'd been hitching, and you get the now-dominant perception that hitchhiking is simply too risky too try.
But there's no evidence hitchhiking is all that dangerous
In her op-ed, Strand goes on to note that we've never had good evidence that hitchhikers — or the drivers who pick them up — are particularly likely to be raped or murdered. One of the few studies on the topic, conducted by the California Highway Patrol in 1974, concluded that "the results ... do not show that hitchhikers are over represented in crimes or accidents beyond their numbers."
The study did find that women were much more likely than men to be raped while hitchhiking, a fact that's certainly still true today. But most murders, violent injuries, and rapes are committed at home by a friend, family member, or acquaintance of the victim. According to the FBI, there were just 675 cases or murder or sexual assault along the Interstates from 1979 to 2009 — and not all of these involved hitchhikers.
The widespread fear of hitchhiking is probably motivated less by evidence than by a pair of other trends. In his research, Smith argues that even as it became rarer, it seemed more dangerous because of the people still doing it.
"People who don't have cars and are trying to hitchhike might be perceived as weirder, more deviant, or more dangerous," he says. The more stigmatized it became, the fewer drivers who were likely to pick someone up. Fewer willing drivers led to fewer people trying to hitch, and the downward spiral continued.
Our fear of hitchhiking might also fit into a more general fear of strangers that has blossomed in American society over the past few decades. Parents instruct their children never to talk to strangers, for instance — but in reality, the overwhelming majority of child abductions are committed by family members.
In much the same way, about 30,000 people die in car accidents every year, but the few dozen who are murdered along the highways make hitchhiking a much palpable threat than driving. Our perceived fear of hitchhiking has surpassed the actual risk of it. "There's a kind of safety bug that's taken over in society," Pisarski says. "We're much more reluctant to interact with strangers than before."
Could hitchhiking make a comeback through ride-sharing?
More recently, smartphones and location-based apps have allowed people to share rides with strangers again. They make it seem safer by providing information about them, usually through their Facebook profiles.
These apps take a few different forms. There's CabCorner, Via, UberPool, and Lyft Line, which let you split a cab or other paid ride with people nearby who need to get to a similar destination. Hovee matches you with co-workers or other commuters who share a similar route to work, and Carma Carpooling does the same, but charges riders and pays the driver to offset gas costs.
There's also slugging, a lower-tech practice that first developed in DC during the 1970s and is still practiced by a few thousand people daily there and in San Francisco. People who want a ride simply line up at set locations near highways, and drivers pick them up, primarily so they can drive in HOV lanes or avoid paying tolls.
Sure, all this is a bit different from someone hitching a ride with their thumb out by the side of the road. But it achieves the same basic benefit of putting otherwise empty seats in cars to use, reducing traffic.
"From a transportation capacity standpoint, the biggest wasted resource we have is all those empty seats," Pisarski says. "Anything we can do to help fill those up is a positive thing."