Chapter 4: Why do people give lifts?
This was one of the questions put to the 186 hitch-hikers picked up and grilled in my Bedford van in August and September 1968 (see Appendix 2). As one might expect the most obvious answer came up most often: 'for company'. This idea was expressed under a variety of guises by 138 people out of 186. Many people gave more than one reason. The detailed break-down looked like this:
83: Because they want company (companionship)
The majority verdict of the 186 that the general run of drivers give lifts because they want company is borne out in practice in the experience of every thumber. By far the most likely vehicle to stop is the one with a single man in it. The least likely vehicle to pull up is one with a couple or a family. (This is not just a matter of space, though clearly a four seater saloon with five kids piled in the back can't stop for physical reasons.) It is also noticeable that single men stop more readily when driving on business from Monday to Friday than in a fully private capacity at the weekend or on holiday. It would seem that the driver stops most readily when he needs to humanize his situation; at the weekend he is on the road for personal and recreational reasons, and his own thoughts are sufficiently absorbing to fill his mind and make picking someone up not seem necessary. When driving with a friend, a woman, or his family he is bound in a matrix of human ties and the idea of a hitch-hiker suddenly installing himself appears irrelevant or even unwelcome.
Another interesting thing is that two male hitchers find it more difficult to get a lift than one. This may be a question of space but very often it is because the idea of picking up two men is less satisfactory in the mind of the man driving alone than the prospect of picking up one person. On dark nights or lonely roads an element of fear on the driver's part evidently comes into this. But the willingness to pick up one male hitch-hiker but not two is a pretty constant feature of driver reaction on main roads in broad daylight. This is how a young Liverpool scooter shop owner put it:
One man in a family car normally has junk over 2 seats-you can squeeze two people in but not their luggage. Also there's something about taking on two people, um . . . this happened to me on Queen's Drive the other day: I picked up a couple of students and they sat and carried on a completely private conversation and I was made to stay in my corner-took me about half an hour to break in and ask them where they wanted to go.
The man driving alone over a long distance often wants to fill his human void, but he does not want to become part of an initially alien group. If he picks up 2 hitchers he is inviting an already formed grouplet into his car. If he picks up a single person the resultant 'group' will be a result of give and take between the two of them.
By reacting positively to the hitcher's signal or look and by applying his brakes the driver is creating for himself an initially receptive and aimiably disposed companion. He is singling himself out from the mostly anonymous stream of vehicles that have flowed past the thumber in the course of the previous 5 minutes, 25 minutes, 2 hours. A few of the cars in the stream will have appeared friendly to the thumber. The drivers will have indicated that they are turning off further up the road and that there is no point in stopping. The vast majority of vehicles will have seemed neutral, but neutral with a negative tinge in that they have failed to stop. In a small number of cases the person by the roadside will have sensed hostility on the part of passing drivers, either in the form of stony indifference, a look or a gesture. In Britain the expression of hostility to the hitcher is usually mild and covert-not so in the USA, according to a Cambridge woman student:
I remember we were outside Los Angeles once-that was so depressing: thousands of those huge, shiny, middle class cars going past and sort of made-up women sort of sneering out of the windows, you know, you felt they were going to spit on us....
Apart from singling himself out as a human being from a blur of steel and glass, the driver is also offering the hitcher shelter from the weather and an escape from the hugeness of the roadside into the cosy, enclosed area of the vehicle. Naturally, too, he is furthering the thumber's basic practical aim of getting to his destination. All this tends to put the companion of the next few minutes or hours into a receptive mood.
Whether he is giving a lift to one person or more, the driver holds the psychologically and socially dominant position in the ensuing dialogue, at least he does at first. The balance may be changed as the miles roll by if the hitch-hiker asserts himself. At the start of the lift, however, the driver usually has a sub- or semi-conscious perception of himself as the one with the upper hand. His has been the active role in stopping for the hitch-hiker. His is the power to terminate the lift. He manifestly possesses the car, or even if it is not his, possesses the mobility it affords. By contrast the hitcher is bereft of auto-mobility. The driver is frequently older than the thumber-he may see the other in a paternal or elder-brotherly sort of way. He perceives his action as a generous one. The driver, if he gets on reasonably well with the hitcher sometimes extends his generosity well beyond the scope of the bare lift. He pays for refreshments for both when they stop, he goes out of his way to put the thumber down where he wants to be, he looks after his temporary guest. Talking of a pair of Italian lorry drivers a Cambridge student said:
We'd arrived in Brindisi, I think, and I had nowhere to sleep the night and there were two of them and only two bunks, so they gave one up to me and said: 'Have that'. Incredibly generous, they'd also paid for my lunch and taken me half way through Italy.
The word generous needs defining. It comes from 'genus', meaning 'stock' or 'race', and in its primary but now archaic sense means 'of good descent' or 'high born'. From there it comes to mean magnanimous, munificent, freely giving. The very etymology of the word shows the link in people's minds between the act of freely giving and the resultant enhancing of self-esteem on the part of the giver. A generous action, though involving giving to another is at the same time a self-boosting, ultimately a self-ish action.
Generosity of the type ascribed to the Italian lorry men by the Cambridge student is one form of expression of the social and psychological dominance by the driver over the thumber, a dominance which to some extent exists in the ordinary host-guest relationship among friends. Some drivers express their perception of the relationship with the thumber by preening. According to an 18 year old male student from Liverpool:
Some of the people are rather eager, very eager about their cars; they like showing off to me. They like to show they can overtake .... They're a bit like racers and I feel they don't have to do this for me because it doesn't really impress me....
The same sort of point was made by the car-driving scooter shop owner quoted earlier:
The worst people are the people who ... well the people of about my age in Ford Anglias who pick up a hitch-hiker and like to show him what they can do with it-that can be really terrifying
At times sadism can enter into the driver's exploitation of his dominant position. Such feelings are much to the fore in this young teacher's account of a lift he gave in Greece in his sports car:
On the way we picked up a Frenchman and sat him in the back of the car-there was no seat in the back, just ... er ... a little half seat. He sat on this thing and I drove very fast, very very recklessly, very very drunkenly .... All the time we were driving, me taking corners very fast, there were groans:
While the driver finds himself in the superior position, the thumber often sees himself cast, at least initially, in the complementary inferior role. He has got to fit into his host's mood, talk along the lines of the lift giver appears to want to follow. According to a Cambridge undergraduate:
... if you are out to make contact with them you have to adjust to their standards, if you like .... Also I find you have to be very careful what you say to the person who has picked you up ....
Occasionally one hears of hitch-hikers who, as the lift situation develops, find it impossible to go along with their hosts' attitudes. There was the case of a fiery, red-bearded Welsh student, hitching with a CND badge in his lapel. The man who picked him up violently disagreed with the Ban the Bomb movement and after a few miles threw the student out of the car. The latter had angrily sustained his point of view and in so doing had stepped out of the acceptant role the driver assumed he would conform to.
I was once given a lift by an ex-Manchester CID man who began plying me with details of how he used to take righteous pleasure in beating up sexual suspects in the cells of the station he worked from. My inner reactions were amazement-I was still very young-then horror, and finally hate. On the surface however, I confined myself to non-reaction and did not get out until we reached the point agreed at the beginning of the lift. The repression of my revulsion against that monster was partly due to curiosity and culpable spinelessness but also to an unconscious submissiveness inherent in the lift situation.
A middle class Jewish student faced with an anti-semitic working class drive' decided to take the latter's opinions lying down:
I once got a lift in a van and it was really interesting because I'm Jewish and this chap was talking in a way against the Jews. I let him talk because he was giving me a lift and I didn't fancy being thrown out and didn't really fancy arguing either. I don't think he was conscious of the fact I was Jewish. Well, perhaps this might have been cowardly but I didn't think I wanted it to show, somehow ....
The acceptant, passive attitude of the lift recipient is often based on a feeling of indebtedness. A girl was given a lift back to her home town by a young man who took the opportunity to make a date with her. On the date:
... we ended up in the middle of some wood and he tried to rape me.
In explaining why she had accepted to see him again she said:
I felt indebted to him for giving me the lift home ... they feel you're indebted to them for giving you a lift.
The hitch-hiker feels he's being given something, he's beholden to the driver who stops for him. This may make him vulnerable psychologically, somehow in the driver's hands, in his power—so a Cambridge student:
Well, you're obviously completely at their ... you're relying on these people for absolutely everything if you ask them to give you lifts ....
Interestingly this student went on to suggest a solution to such driver domination:
Well you are taking something from them, and I gather in certain parts of the world it's customary, in the Near East at any rate, it's normal to accept lifts and pay for them ....
For him the idea of paying for a lift somehow redresses the social and psychological balance. More of this in the next chapter.
To the very class conscious, insecure middle class hitcher the relationship with the lift giver, especially if he sees the latter as a social inferior, can appear as an embarrassing reversal of roles. Normally he contentedly looks down on his 'social inferiors', but in accepting a lift from one of them he finds himself in an oddly up-side-down position. This feeling was graphically expressed by the son of a North Country company cashier studying at Cambridge:
Sometimes I don't like it because you are really at the mercy of anybody. I mean if anybody stops you're going to get in, and, um, it's perhaps not ... it's slightly degrading, I suppose, depends which way you look at it. I worked at Butlins this summer—I had the same feeling there. I was meeting all sorts of people, I was a dining hall waiter, and it was very pleasant to chat to them and so on, but ultimately I suppose I was doing it for the tips .... And of course you know when you get ten bob pushed in your hand you take it because you must, but again I didn't like to do it because ... a lot of the people probably weren't as well off as myself, probably a lot of them were very lower class at Butlins, and, um, I thought it was a bit degrading as well.
Normally this student sees himself as socially superior to a lorry driver but in the waggon cab he suddenly finds himself in a psychologically inferior position and revealingly he describes this as degrading, like accepting lower class tips at Butlins.
The examples given in the last few pages to illustrate the psychological mechanisms of the initial stage of the lift relationship, with the driver in a dominant position vis a vis the taker, are not put forward as being provenly average or typical. The thumbers who brought up the subject of driver dominance in semi-non-directive interviews (in which I tried not to initiate topics by questioning) are presumably people particularly sensitive to this aspect of hitching. There were many interviews in which the subject was never broached by the inteniewees. While the strength of conscious feeling of this batch of people is not typical, the light their comments throw on the lift situation is revealing. Many other hitch-hikers live through their lifts without making such feelings conscious, but this doesn't mean they don't play out their acceptant roles efficiently. Their silence on the subject may suggest that they have no difficulty in doing so.
Apart from the respective roles played out in some degree by many drivers and thumbers there is another very important element to the lift giving situation. This is the driver's rapport with his car.
How does a man regard his car? In order to get an idea of the unconscious relationship of people to their cars, Dr Stephen Black in Man and Motor Cars used hypnosis on a group of 25 subjects, nineteen of them in their late teens or early twenties. One point made by nearly all the subjects under hypnosis was that they saw their cars as an escape. One of the men put it like this:
In town you're surrounded by people, that's why public lavatories become important; you can be alone for a few minutes. And that's the point of a car in town: once behind the wheel you're alone and yet the world still goes by outside .... you can cuss and blind as much as you like in a car. You can do anything you want....
The car was seen as a kind of shield, a protective wall against the outside world. A medical student said:
I often drive the car out into the park, sit looking over the water and then get on with my work ....
Again under hypnosis an electrician said:
I think best in a car, going along that is. You see things very clearly. When I'm worried over Mary I feel better in a car than at home. With the wireless going and the heater on it's a bit like home anyway, and you can be sure of being alone.
Black's conclusion from his long investigation of these 25 people's subconscious feelings towards their cars is that the car is:
An additional mobile room in the house, a place in which to escape, a den into which a man can creep for peace, or a woman to be alone in safety with her man.
If Black's findings are correct how is it that any driver ever stops for a waving thumb? In other words if a car is such an intimate place, a kind of extension of the home, taking in a hitch-hiker must appear hazardous and unnatural. This is gone into by one of the Cambridge interviewees:
Before I'd hitched myself, I think I'd always have felt it was a sort of intrusion to have someone in the car—you know if there's someone on the road I might feel sorry and want to give him a lift, to help the person, but on the other hand, as soon as he was in the car, it'd mean there'd be a sort of embarrassed silence, nobody'd say much. It's an intrusion, it's like people coming in visiting in the middle of your favourite television programme I think now, having hitch-hiked, I appreciate it very much, and I think it is a thing one ought to do especially for young people.
Another Cambridge undergraduate felt even more strongly about the hitch-hiker invading the intimacy of the car:
Well, it's an intrusion on the atmosphere ... I mean it may be because after all the hitch-hiker ... you're giving a service, you're doing a favour to somebody and probably the person who is hitching cannot afford to travel so you do feel in a way superior, even though you may not be. If you sent something to Oxfam or something like that, you do them a favour but you wouldn't want, you might not want to commit yourself personally, i.e. you wouldn't want the little boy with the bony chest to come knocking at the door. I think it's that sort of intrusion, yes, a sort of personal contact you don't really want.
The intimacy of their relationship to their vehicle and their desire to be alone with their own thoughts, must in some cases stop people giving lifts. A young publisher interviewee expressed precisely such a feeling:
I have this desire to be alone when I can be alone and ... not have it infringed .... yet he added that at a lonely period of his life he did give lifts seeing the hitch-hiker as an alternative to allowing himself to remain prey to brooding thoughts. In other words the intimacy and privacy of the car can become too much for a driver and he will decide to alleviate his isolation by sharing it.
Even when he does give a lift the driver is able to preserve much of his apartness. The people involved have no previous knowledge of each other and they are pretty sure they will not meet again. The situation offers no easy means of identification of one by the other, unless the hitcher is moved to take down the car's number. Often after three hours together the driver and the hitcher don't even know each other's names, and if they do they are likely to be first names not surnames. In other words it is a situation that offers remarkable anonymity. It is usually a once and for all meeting with no follow-up. The vehicle offers absolute privacy, unlike most other meeting places for mutual strangers, such as train compartments, buses, pubs, queues, waiting rooms, dance halls etc. The initial problem most Englishmen, at least middle class ones, face in meeting a stranger is how to make the first contact without risk of rebuff or cold response. Within the convention of lift giving this awesome psychological barrier does not exist. The initial contact is made by the opening of the vehicle door and the exchange of information on mutual destinations.
Should the driver feel the need to talk about his own problems the lift situation is anonymous enough to be safe and yet intimate enough to make it easy to express feelings it would seem impossible to divulge to a stranger in almost any other setting. To a driver preoccupied with his own problems the hitch-hiker sometimes provides a heaven-sent opportunity for unburdening for release of pent-up emotions and even occasionally for confession of guilty feelings. For the driver the car is part of his own intensely personal environment, but with the advantage of anonymity as far as the thumber's perception of it is concerned. He is the dominant partner in the ensuing dialogue, he holds the initiative, he can demand and usually get an acceptant attitude in the other person.
It seems to be a fairly common hitch-hiking experience that some people do pick you up to unburden themselves of their secret troubles, worries and fantasies, hiding securely behind the namelessness granted by the lift giving convention. So, according to a Liverpool student:
... they tell you about their wives, they tell you about the most .... I remember a lorry driver who was telling me all about his wife and it was quite terrible .... Yes, this is the thing: people can grab hold of someone they don't know to unburden themselves, and I've found this quite a few times with hitch-hiking....
A driver will sometimes stop and pick someone up because he is boiling over with rage and needs to give vent to it. Once on the road from Paris to Calais a man stopped for me and as he opened the door I saw a pool of bluish-red vomit swilling round on the floor below the passenger seat—it was without body, entirely liquid. He spent the next 15 kilometres telling me he'd picked up a drunk further back down the road and how the man had spewed up. He told the simple tale three or four times, indignantly demanding to know if I approved of a hitch-hiker behaving that way. Acceptantly I agreed that his indignation was justified and loyally I served the purpose for which he had picked me up-to earth his anger.
A driver sometimes picks people up because he has an overpowering urge to escape from at least physical aloneness. This was the case with Miles Giffard who on November 7th 1952 battered his parents to death with a length of piping, dumped them over a cliff in Cornwall, and set off by car for London. Amazingly, from one point of view, he picked up two hitchers on the way. They said later he had seemed preoccupied and had chain smoked. The only reasonable assumption is that he couldn't bear to be alone and may even have had an urge to confess his actions, to unload himself, to pass his guilt to other ears, without actually getting to the point of doing so.
The hitch-hiking situation offers a man possessed by feelings of guilt a unique confessional. With a priest or psychiatrist he would find himself in the psychologically inferior position-vis a vis the thumber his is the 'generous dominant role. For the priest or psychiatrist he is an identified or often identifiable individual. To the hitch-hiker he is merely an unplaceable man in a car. Rodger (Hitch in Time) describes the situation neatly:
They don't want advice, they want someone to listen as they work something out. No one has ever confessed a murder to me but it would not swrprise me if they did. For you are the random listener, a person without a name, a traveller with no certain destination .... You are simply a wall with ears.
Along with Rodger I can say no one has ever confessed a murder to me, but one driver did announce that he had just stolen the car we were driving in. He picked me up going North along the A.1 and after about 10 minutes' small talk said:
I think I ought to tell you I stole this car two hours ago in the West End.
The rest of his life story came tumbling out, a pathetic alternation of petty thefts and inane imprisonments; his response to society seemed almost as inadequate as society's to him. He confessed his theft simply because he had to share knowledge of it with another human being, dangerous though the telling might have proved for him. I got out when he stopped for petrol and respected his confidence, despite an awareness of conflicting loyalties.
I know of 2 other people who have been picked up in stolen cars and confessed to. In one case the man driving had simply nicked the car—in the other the driver was also on the run from prison. In all 3 cases, my own and the other 2, it was crazy for the drivers to confess to their hitchers-they did so compulsively.
Sometimes the driver may find himself propelled into intimacy by the violence of his own desires. A psychologist in the North of England was picked up by a man who made determined and repeated homosexual advances to him. The hitcher successfully repulsed him and the man calmed down. He spent the rest of the journey telling his life story and talking about his homosexuality. Having been forced by his passion to reveal his leanings here was a person who could be talked to openly, without further fear of exposure—his actions had already exposed him. The lift situation provided the intimate setting necessary for a confession of his problems and also gave him the security of anonymity.
It seems the more confident he is of his superior position vis a vis the hitch-hiker, the more the driver will drop his reserve and be willing to reveal the lower reaches of his consciousness. In the late fifties the white writer John H. Griffin blackened his skin enough to pass for a negro and bummed around the American South. At one point he tried hitch-hiking:
Strangely I began getting rides. Men would pass you in the daylight but pick you up after dark .... With a negro they assumed they need to give no semblance of self-respect or respectability. The visual element entered into it. In a car at night visibility is reduced. A man will reveal himself in the dark, which gives an illusion of anonymity, more than he will in the bright light. Some were shamelessly open, some shamelessly subtle ...
The white driver picking up the negro hitcher feels himself to be in a doubly dominant position, as white to black and as lift giver to lift solicitor. Griffin was picked up by a comparatively sophisticated white boy who nevertheless plied him with questions about the size of negro genitals and details of black sex life:
He saw me as something akin to an animal in that he felt no need to maintain his sense of human dignity, though he would certainly have denied this. I told myself I was tired, that I must not judge these men who picked me up, and for the price of a ride I submitted me to the swamps of their fantasy lives. They showed me something that all men have but seldom bring to the surface, since most men seek health. The boy ended up wanting me to expose myself to him, saying he'd never seen a negro naked.
Within the cocoon of the lift situation, and within his feeling of almost species superiority to the negro it was possible for the young white to ask a thing he would never get a chance of asking outside the intimacy of the car and never dare to ask one of his own colour. Griffin describes him as an otherwise decent, friendly, well-disposed person.
A good deal has now been said about the driver-thumber relationship, the relationship of the driver to his car, and about the intimacy of the lift situation. The extent to which these concepts apply depends on the circumstances of the lift. If you get a lift on the back of a truck you are not exactly in heart-to-heart communion with the driver. I have had lifts when I was so dog-tired I murmured courteous words and my mind slipped from under me into sleep. The hitch-hiker may be shoved in the back of the car while the driver and his friend talk business for two hundred miles; he may be given a lift by a driver who wants physical presence but no conversation, or he may only be in the car a few miles and so establish no meaningful contact. Though the ideas discussed above throw light on the nature of the lift situation and though they go some way to explaining the motivation of drivers in stopping, they are clearly not relevant to all Iifts given.
While 138 of the 186 hitchers I picked up on the motorways felt drivers stop for company, a sizeable minority view was that they give lifts because they have themselves at one time hitch-hiked (a number of people suggested both motivations). The 186 people produced 60 suggestions that drivers stop because they have hitched themselves, or because they have been in the same position.
The second phrase is probably the more accurate. Drivers who have hitched tend to stop for the particular category of thumbers they themselves one time belonged to.
Probably the largest group of former thumbers are ex-servicemen, and soldiers often make the point that people giving lifts will say they stopped because they know what it's like trying to get home on a 48 hour leave pass. Forces hitchers benefit from a national myth about their lift worthiness. This has its roots reaching back to the forties and is so strong it affects even people who've never blancoed a belt or spat on a toe cap (see Chapter 10).
The lift giver often stops because the thumber belongs to his own group, to a group with which he has some affinity, or to a group which interests him. Perhaps the most striking example of this solidarity is among waggon drivers-they expect to be stopped for by their fellows and on the whole they are not disappointed. Lorry drivers also stop pretty readily for car delivery men. But they stop most readily for the group of platers they feel nearest to, lorry delivery men.
A lot of truck drivers see car delivery as a cushy job, running round in snug, well-heated, modern cars. They feel much less well disposed to these platers than to the men and occasional women who drive bouncing, jolting, open lorry chassises. Chassis driving is dangerous; men perch on temporary wooden seating, and without the protection of cab or safety belts they can easily be catapulted forwards in the event of an emergency stop. 4 chassis drivers from Luton were killed in this way between 1964 and '69. I was told by a woman plater from Oxford that on chassis work you are much better received in transport cafe society. Chassis drivers wear heavier clothing than platers on cars and look grimy --this is a substantial help in getting lifts from commercials.
Tacitly or consciously recognizing the importance of group sympathy most long distance hitch-hikers make their belonging to one category or other visually clear. Servicemen hitch in uniform though some might prefer to climb into civvies for their two days out of camp. Platers 'flip' their number plates at likely vehicles. One man in Oxford told me he would never hitch without plates He gave me to understand that when identified as a CD man he felt hitching was respectable, but otherwise not. He added he would never go on holiday thumbing.
Drivers who have themselves been students, or who have children in higher education tend to stop for people wearing college scarves. A lorry driver who had previously been a plater said he always stopped for CD men and students. His son was at art school.
A startling thing to emerge from the semi-non-directive interviews with students has been the extent to which they see themselves as the hitchers in the country par excellence. Several went so far as to say that, as drivers, they would only pick up hitchers with college scarves. So a girl at Liverpool:
Well, I would hesitate if ... driving ... I would hesitate to pick someone up in the car unless it was a single person ... perhaps with students I would give lifts, but I think I'd hesitate with anyone else ... you can usually tell students anyway by the scarves and I would appreciate they wouldn't ... they'd be hard up ....
A Cambridge male undergraduate felt broadly the same:
I think when I have a car I'll definitely give lifts to students, but I don't know if I could trust many other people. I think students as a rule are perhaps more trustworthy than other people and they won't attack you or anything. Well, one hopes not.
Another man from Cambridge perhaps got nearer the kernel of the thing when he said:
As far as possible now I'd certainly give anybody a lift. But they would have to be respectable and probably they'd have to wear a college scarf because that helps a lot. Again that identifies with myself—I'm a student and I know that students are all in the same boat ....
The drivers' conception of the group to which they tend to give lifts may be extremely narrow. A student at East Anglia said that his parents, Cambridge dons, only gave lifts to people in Cambridge college scarves. Such can be the importance for the driver of feeling that he is picking up a member of his own group, or even his own section of his group. With this sort of psychology the thumber's uniform, in this case a coloured scarf, becomes a vital recognition sign.
It follows that if drivers tend to give lifts only to their own group or ones they feel a link with, they will avoid offering lifts to people from alien groups. So motorists pick up hitching lorry drivers much less easily than work mates do.
A lorry driver who broke down at the London end of the M.4 started hitching round the North Circular-it took him five hours to cover the 10 miles to the M.1 mouth. He was dressed in overalls and was carrying his log book and a small case. Unfortunately for him there were almost no commercial vehicles on the road that day and motorists just didn't stop for him. Many bourgeois car drivers, who readily pick up middle class hitchers and student-scarved ones, don't stop for working class thumbers.
The idea of not giving or accepting lifts from alien groups comes out strongly in a discussion among skinheads in a North East London school. These big-booted third formers with red braces and almost Yul Brynner hair cuts had two particular hates: 'Hippos' (hippies) and 'greasers' (motorbike gangs). Here are two revealing snatches of a skinhead discussion on hitch-hiking:
A: That's right, if you see some birds at the side of the road showing a bit of leg, I mean they're the type you pick up. Any old 'obo with rucksacks and things like that and 'air down to their shoulders, you wouldn't pick them up, dirty, filthy and ...
There has to be basic mutual trust for the hitch-hiking situation to be thinkable. Given his hostility to 'hippos' and 'greasers' the skinhead is not going to risk giving them lifts or taking lifts from them. On a much graver level the American negro is not a willing lift giver or seeker. Steinbeck in Travels with Charley tells how he stopped
... to offer a ride to an old negro who trudged with heavy boots in the grass-grown verge beside the concrete road. He was reluctant to accept and did so only as tho helpless to resist .... He clasped his hands in his lap and all of him seemed to shrink in the seat as though he sucked in his outline to make it smaller.
Steinbeck tried to talk to him but he got scared of being questioned and asked to be dropped off. The other face of the coin is that negroes don't give non-blacks lifts easily. A Mexican Indian girl told me:
The Negroes in the South won't pick you up ...
Because they're afraid ...
Of white men. The majority won't because as the white people don't like negroes they're not going to pick up a white man on the road who might get into the car and call them 'nigger', you know.
The people who find it most difficult to get a lift in Britain are the ones who don't fit into any well-known, visually recognisable category of thumbers, for example, shabbily dressed, middle aged men without car delivery plates. They have no 'uniform', they do not belong to a placeable hitching group-it is them that tend to wait the longest by the roadside.
The concept of 'uniform' applies not only to the hitcher's personal appearance but also to whether he is standing in a place the driver regards as normal, and whether it is a standard time of day for people like him to be hitching. In other words the hitcher's visual and hence psychological impact on the driver must be reassuring. As the cinemas and dance halls are shutting down and after the last buses have gone are normal times for people to be wanting lifts from town centres into the suburbs or out to surrounding villages. Drivers have been conditioned to expect to be asked for lifts at this sort of time, the hitcher's motivation is clear and they feel it safe to stop.
However dark the night and lonely the road, a climber heading into Snowdonia on a Friday night is a fully understandable phenomenon to a motorist who knows the area-he will be easy to give a lift to. A man dressed in a city suit hitching the same way at the same time would be much less reassuring; a whole swarm of doubts and suspicions would flash through the driver's mind and likely as not depress the accelerator rather than the brake.
To return to the verdict of the 186 respondents on why people give lifts:
When you take the responses as a whole (a few single ones have been omitted) it is striking how few hitchers regard the drivers who stop for them as altruistically motivated. Even in the'goodheartedness' category several people use expressions that bring out the self-directedness of the drivers' actions: 'out of charity', 'to do a bloke a favour' ....
The 27 people who suggest that drivers stop out of pity are very much aware of the extent to which vehicle owners pick up for reasons connected with their own psychological needs and not principally with any need of the hitcher. Because they feel sorry for you and because it makes them feel they're doing good are pretty closely allied concepts.
So the short answer to the question: Why do people give lifts? is: because they need to. They give lifts because of themselves, not principally because of the people asking for the lifts. Hitch-hikers are the supply and the demand comes from the drivers. As in commercial exchange the existence of a self advertising supply creates a further demand. The existence of a thumb-waving hitcher makes the man driving alone suddenly realise he would prefer not to be alone. Hitch-hikers should rejoice that lift giving is so firmly based on driver self-interest-if it weren't, if only altruistic saints gave lifts, London to Edinburgh would be quicker walked than thumbed.