Chapter 8: Ban it! Organise it!
So far this book has dealt with hitchhiking in terms of the various groups that practice it, the family, the individual hitcher and the driver. But when new phenomena spring up in their midst societies as a whole produce reactions and the aim of this chapter is to look at the ways different societies have coped with hitch-hiking on an institutional and legal level. The easiest way to understand the way British society has faced the phenomenon is to compare it with legal and other reactions elsewhere.
A society is a bit like a digestive system—when confronted with a new substance it has either to reject it or set to work breaking it down and absorbing it into the bloodstream. As in the physiological digestive system, there may be contradictory forces at work, some for rejection of the new substance, some for assimilation. For the sake of clarity it's easier to consider the two sets of forces, rejectionary and assimilative, separately.
Some societies have attempted to reject hitch-hiking by banning it outright. Already in the early 1930's there was a vocal anti-hitch-hiking consensus among older people in many States of the North American Union. This is the way the experienced hitch-hiker Hugh Hardyman saw it, writing in New Republic on July 29 1931:
With the return of summer, that curious American phenomenon, the hitchhiker, has reappeared on all the automobile highways of the United States. Automobile clubs warn their members not to pick up pedestrians who wave hopefully from the roadside; state legislatures pass laws against requesting lifts from unknown motorists: drivers exchange anecdotes of hold-ups when they meet in tourist camps and hotels, and explain that they will never pick any one up....
but Hardyman adds:
... and the hitch-hikers go on riding wherever they want in spite of the chatter.
This is a clear example of how a climate of opinion builds up in a society, culminating in prohibitive legislation. Anecdotes about bad hitch-hikers, warnings from motoring organisations and finally state laws against the act of hitching or giving a lift.
In April 1950 the US Readers Digest carried a scathing article on thumbing by Dom Wharton, and it should be remembered that the Digest tries hard to give its readers what they want to read. The article opened this way:
Driving along the highway you see the hitch-hiker standing there, thumb aloft. A college boy on his way home? Or a criminal out to rob you? An escaped convict who needs your car? A trigger happy dope-fiend? You don't know. But there's one way to find out-give him a lift. If he holds you up then you're certain he wasn't the deserving fellow you thought he was.
By 1950 hitch-hiking had been banned by law in 23 states and in another 25 there were towns and cities with local ordinances against it.
In a second article in the Digest 5 years later, June 1955, Wharton gave two further reasons why the hitch-hiker should be shunned. The first was the insurance risk:
Hitch-hiking can also cause financial troubles. In 21 states a driver may be held liable for injury to a hitch-hiker in an auto accident even though the driver's negligence is minor. One injured hitch-hiker this year collected $28,000 from his host.
The second argument Wharton advanced for avoiding picking people up is the risk of accident in stopping for them:
Frequently a hitch-hiker is the cause of an accident. Many rear-end collisions and pile-ups have resulted from motorists stopping to give someone a lift. A number of hitch-hikers have been run down. The State of Washington (West Coast) last year took action against 2,484 hitchers, arresting about half of them, giving others written warnings. The result, according to the State patrol chief, is a 12.9% reduction in pedestrian fatalities.
Of course people keep hitching in North America despite the bans and the sulphur laden atmosphere. Apart from the rejectionary mechanisms described above, there are also assimilative ones at work in US society, which will be looked into later.
The political establishment of a society can be panicked into banning a social phenomenon which suddenly appears dangerous or evil. This is precisely what happened when the British Parliament included pot in the 1964 Dangerous Drugs Act.
In the fifties the Italian government seriously considered banning hitching in Italy. Following press reports of rapes and stranglings in France, on 3 September 1955, the Italian Ministry of the Interior proposed that lorry drivers and motorists who give free lifts should face jail sentences and suspension of their licences. The plan never reached the statute book and Italy remains one of the most exhilarating European countries to hitch across.
In Britain there has been remarkably little talk of banning hitch-hiking by law. Remarkable because there are still many people totally opposed to it. In 1957 a local council tried to set in motion a national anti-hitching campaign but its leader's fiery words met with scant response. According to the Daily Telegraph of 28 August 1957:
Recommending a nationwide campaign against hitch-hiking the road safety committee emphasised the danger of the thumber distracting the motorist's attention from the road.
The AA immediately reacted negatively, dissociating itself from any anti-thumber drive. They felt that there was no evidence for thinking that daytime hitching caused any appreciable number of accidents though it might conceivably do at night. The AA refused to support any campaign to ban hitchhiking. They said it was a matter for the individual. In saying this they probably mirror the feelings of the majority of British drivers. It is one thing to personally dislike a habit and quite another to try and legislate it out of existence. The RAC took a similar line to the AA's. According to the Daily Mail they commented drily:
Interference with the rights of the individual.
My press cutting file for the lass 15 years is full of letters and articles deploring hitch-hiking, but only very rarely does a British editor run an item calling for a legal ban on the habit. One such exceptional article did appear in the Evening News on 23 July 1963:
As a motorist I find the growing practice of youngsters 'thumbing a lift' a disturbing nuisance. As a parent I deplore it deeply. Like many fathers I have told my children bluntly never to cadge a lift and never to accept one. Hitchhiking is a menace from every point of view. The driver who is alone and stops to give some young tough a lift may find himself the victim of a hold-up. The driver, alone, foolish enough to pick up an older girl, could be in jeopardy of blackmail—it has happened .... So I say make hitch-hiking illegal—except in proved cases of emergency such as sudden illness. Bring to court all children (and their parents) caught attempting it. Only by such a drastic measure can the dangers of a repetition of the Barbara Herron tragedy be prevented.
This writer, John Marshall, suggests making the act of thumbing a crime. The Italian Ministry of the Interior thought of putting the onus on the driver and punishing him for Stopping. The State of Washington arrests hitchers for raising their thumbs. One of the problems about legislating against hitchhiking is that it's hard to know who to prosecute. If you prosecute the hitch-hiker simply for visually suggesting he would like a lift, you are really going back to the 1824 Act against street beggars, or equating thumbing with prostitutional soliciting. It is equally hard to imagine arresting a driver simply because he decides he wants some casual company. In the British context an anti-hitching law is barely credible at the moment.
So much for attempts to totally ban hitch-hiking. If a society's legislators reject the idea of outright prohibition they may consider trying to stop unsuitable people from doing it. This is the situation in Britain over the consumption of alcohol. The state does not ban the drinking of beer but it stops people under 18 doing it in public houses. Rather the same has happened with hitch-hiking in France. On February 17 1964 the Ministries of the Interior and of Youth issued a decree banning hitch-hiking by French subjects under 18 on their way to an organised youth camp or holiday movement.
The move was not unexpected. 4 years previously the Paris Prefecture of Police had issued an official warning to drivers against lift-giving (17.7.60). They had been requested to do so by the Ministry of the Interior.
Behind all this official concern was a strong, well-organised, well financed pressure group called Action Teams Against the Trade in Women and Children. It got off the ground in 1956 and the basic aim was to root out prostitution. As well as nosing round suspect hotels and helping prostitutes to break away from the primitive capitalism of their pimps, the members of the teams have run regional and national campaigns against hitch-hiking. In 1964 they claim to have mounted a propaganda offensive in Western France warning girls coming to Paris not to try it hitch-hiking. They provided the main women's magazines with a scarey file on girls thumbing. They ran nationwide campaigns against it which included issuing 20,000 posters and use of radio and television.
The Action Teams are a powerful organisation not by virtue of their active membership which is small, but because they are an emanation of the ruling elite, the conservative, Roman-Catholic-on-Sunday haute bourgeoisie. Their propaganda against hitch-hiking is potent stuff. For instance they produced a poster showing a girl with a suitcase and handbag flagging down a Panhard car driven by a single man; the words round the picture read:
DID YOU KNOW?
There is no group in England that feels as violently anti-hitch-hiking as the Action Teams. The nearest to expression of this sort of feeling that I have come across was when the North East Regional Conference of Women's Organisations put out an appeal to lorry drivers not to pick up teenager hitch-hikers. Dr Margaret Sokol told the conference delegates (2.10.65) that many teenagers running away from home hitched from place to place on lorries:
... They make their way to these unsavoury clubs and coffee bars where they meet the drug pedlars. The danger from drugs for these young people are far greater than the dangers of sexual assault. If this type of youngster were unable to hitch-hike on lorries, then the worries of many parents would be prevented.
The women's organisations delegates, worrying though they found the situation, did not moot a ban on hitching. They simply decided to ask lorry drivers, through the TGWU, to cooperate in either refusing lifts to suspect teenagers or in helping the police to trace them if they did pick them up. This is a good deal different from the French Action Teams who vaunt their cooperation with Ministries and their influence over 150 MPs.
While the British authorities have never raised the idea of a blanket ban American style, or a minimum age, French style, the idea of making hitchhiking illegal on all fast roads has occurred. This would be an extension of the regulations in force on motorways, from which all pedestrians are banned. A plan of this sort was put forward by Christopher Woodhouse in the Commons on 2 June 1965. The Tory member for Oxford asked the Minister of Transport whether he would introduce legislation to prevent the practice of soliciting lifts from motor vehicles on stretches of public highway where no speed limit applies. The minister replied:
No, I am not aware of any significant danger caused by this practice.
(In 1965 there was no overall speed limit of 70 mph.)
What Woodhouse wanted was a law to stop people hitching on high speed non-motorway roads because of the danger of cars suddenly swerving to a halt to pick somebody up. He was presumably thinking of cases similar to the one recorded in the Telegraph on 12.6.65:
Mrs Judson, a 72 year old widow, received fatal injuries in a head-on collision when a car pulled out to pass another vehicle which was slowing down to pick up a hitch-hiker ....
Though Woodhouse has a point—I have seen several near accidents caused by a car braking too rapidly to give a lift—his proposal would have been tantamount to banning long distance hitch-hiking. If you hitch up the A.1 from London to Newcastle you are constantly being dropped off at roundabouts which are in the middle of fast sections of road.
Another way of reducing the amount of hitching done in a country is to ban the entry of foreigners likely to want to do it. This has been tried by countries like Greece that has insisted on people arriving with a minimum amount of money on them. This is a handy pretext for turning away at the frontier the sort of people who the Greek paper Ethnos in 1965 described as touristic locusts. Apart from maybe bringing in drugs their main crime is not paying out enough cash—hitching is one of the ways they avoid spending. This method, in so far as it is successful, ensures that the hitch-hiking fluid never enters the society's digestive system and so there is no call for either rejectionary legislation or assimilative action.
Societies that find hitch-hiking goes too much against their patterns of behaviour to be left legally alone seem to have evolved three different possible courses of action:
Ban it outright.
But aside from legal sanctions there are many ways in which a society can intervene. Apart from spewing up a new substance the digestive system can get to work to modify and incorporate it. Usually the society's intervention aims to make hitch-hiking conform more closely to the dominant values of the moment.
In some of the socialist countries thumbing is organised under state auspices. In Poland and Russia local tourist bodies and clubs issue would-be hitchers with kilometre coupons for which they pay some small amount. When a driver stops and takes them say 100 kms he receives a 100 kms-worth of coupons. The driver who amasses the most kilometre coupons in a locality gets a prize at the end of a given period, 3 months or six months. According to Moscow Home Service (12.6.65) about 80,000 travelled in 1964 on thumbing coupons in Russia.
Car sharing obviously fits easily into the socialist scheme of values: why should one man travel alone in the grand isolation of a four seater car, especially when cars are short? The coupon scheme is simply a kind of official state blessing for a natural socialist phenomenon—it also encourages drivers to stop more readily for the raised thumb in the hope of maybe getting a fridge or a washing machine at the end of it all. Among 'leading lift givers' there must be sharp competition to pick people up and get to the head of the coupon league.
In wartime, when generalised hardship forces a practical form of socialism onto the most convinced capitalist societies, hitch-hiking sometimes comes in for a period of being organised by the state. This was the case in Cape Town in 1944. People requiring lifts could get books of 'three penny tickets'. When a car stopped for a hitcher the driver would be given threepence and a ticket. The money would go to war funds and the ticket to the petrol rationing authorities who in return allowed the driver some extra petrol. The South African scheme was an adaptation of the 1940 London Help Your Neighbours Scheme (see Chapter 10).
In Britain the state 'blesses' lift giving when there is a transport strike. At such times the Ministry of Transport encourages hitch-hiking but warns drivers to put up a Lifts at Your Own Risk notice in their vehicles. If the thumber has had such a notice pointed out to him, has read it, understood it, and agreed to it before a witness, then the driver is safe from any claim against him by the thumber in case of an accident caused or partly caused by his negligence. The trouble with this from the driver's point of view is that often he has no witness and even if he has, the pomposity of establishing a binding verbal contract with a hitcher prior to a ten minute lift doesn't seem worth the candle. Yet this must be done if the driver is to be safe from a claim against him in case of accident. L.J. Denning, giving judgement in Olley v. Marlborough Court (1949) defined this kind of situation quite clearly:
Now people who rely on contract to exempt themselves from their common law liability must prove that contract strictly. Not only must the terms of the contract be clearly proved, but also the intent to create legal relations—the intent to be legally bound must also be clearly proved.
The Ministry of Transport is careful not to spell out all these complications to the motoring public, so really the advice to put up Lifts at Your Own Risk signs is a gentle attempt to lay the ghost of liability fears. Putting up the notice by itself is no watertight safeguard against a claim.
Apart from directly organising hitch-hiking, as in Russia, Poland and wartime Britain, a society can attempt to keep an eye on it by tagging and identifying the hitchers before they set out. It's a little bit like hill farmers ear-marking sheep. In 1940, on 23 February the London Times wrote about thumbing in America:
Even the hitch-hiker is now being organised. There is a college of hitch-hikers and membership gives the right to the letters R.C.T., which stand for Registered Collegiate Thumber ....
For 50 cents a student could enrol and get himself a membership card. The card was intended to guarantee that the thumber wasn't a thug or a criminal.
A similar identity card scheme was decided on at official level in France in 1970. This is what the Guardian had to say about it (1.7.70):
The French way of assimilating the hitch-hiking phenomenon is to partially ban it for under 18's, and costly bureaucratize what's left. Once buried under mounds of identity cards, insurance schemes, judicial records and the like, the hitch-hiker becomes tamed, institutionalized, domesticated. He has been 'inserted into the structures', digested.
In a much more haphazard fashion there has been an attempt in Britain not to structurally assimilate hitching, but to inject it with the dominant values of the society. You take the growing habit of drifting from place to place at other people's expense and transform it into a strenuous, goal-orientated activity. So the post war army, officered by men affected by the public school type of training, had the brilliant idea of sending soldiers out on 'initiative tests' which mainly involved hitching. This seems to have started in the late forties. A further development of 'muscled hitching' was the competitive variety that is still organised today by some secondary schools and student rag week committees. This type of hitching far from appearing cadgistic or feckless, is invested with the halo of 'sport'. What more glorious assimilation could it have into the 'British way of life'?
Perhaps I've overdrawn the picture—initiative test and competitive hitching in Britain only account for a tiny fraction of what goes on. But their importance is psychological: the fact that competitive and 'outward bound' hitching do exist radically affects the general public image of thumbing. One wonders if the Duke of Edinburgh may not have hitched, once. Kind of maverick respectable.
We have looked at countries where the state organises hitch-hiking, countries where the state ear-marks and checks on hitchers, and Britain in which various organs of society like the army, schools and student organisations try to modify the value system in hitching. West Germany has found yet another way of integrating the thumber: commercialize him and make him profitable. As early as 1951 'lift exchanges' were springing up all over West Germany. At that time the person accepting the lift would pay the driver the equivalent of about one old penny per mile, plus a fee to the agency.
In the following ten years the lift exchange business mushroomed to really huge proportions. By 1960 400,000 lifts per year were being arranged by the exchanges. In 1961 the West German Railways exerted political pressure and the Bonn Parliament passed a law effectively putting the agencies out of business. The law stipulated that a person carrying passengers in his car against payment needed a licence. In 1964 the Federal Constitutional Court declared the law anti-constitutional and therefore void. Many of the exchanges were resuscitated. They are now firmly back in business.
The lift exchange system probably originates in the USA. Travel bureaux in the Western States were certainly organising 'share the gas' rides in the early fifties. These could be of as much help to impecunious drivers as to thumbers. Jack Kerouac mentions them in his book On The Road:
.... eyes bent on Frisco and the coast, we came into El Paso as it got dark, broke. We absolutely had to get some money for gas or we'd never make it. We tried everything. We buzzed the travel bureau, but no one was going West that night. The travel bureau is where you go for share-the-gas-rides, legal in the West. Shifty characters wait with battered suitcases.
What emerges from the comparison of institutional and legal attitudes to hitch-hiking in the USA, Russia, West Germany, France and Britain is that our society is by far the most formally non-directive in its approach. It appears to be in Britain that hitch-hiking has least concerned the entrepreneurs, civil servants and legislators. Some people might go on from here to suggest that of the five countries mentioned Britain is the one that has had the least stomach pains in digesting hitch-hiking. Or is it that our society's digestive juices have worked on hitch-hiking at local group and family level, rather than in Westminster and Whitehall?
The evidence produced in earlier chapters mainly supports the second view. Grass roots conflict over hitch-hiking exists in many quarters of our society, but each conflict is worked through at the level where it occurs. There is conflict over hitching in the car delivery industry, some army commanders try to ban their troops from doing it on leave; after a murder the local police warn against hitching by the group concerned, e.g. school children, there is conflict inside some families between parents and teenagers over hitching. These various forms of conflict, deep though they sometimes run, have never swelled into anything on a national scale strong enough to provoke regulation or legislation, as has happened elsewhere. Perhaps we are lucky to have mistrusted alike lawyers, institution men and profiteers.